A Clutch of Christmas CDs

by | Dec 6, 2008 | Special Features | 0 comments

A Clutch of Christmas CDs
We’ve sifted thru a bunch of Christmas music discs, passed on those banal ones obviously cashing in on the commercial side of the holiday, and have several to recommend to you herewith:

“A Boston Camerata Christmas” Worlds of Early Christmas Music – An American Christmas; A French Christmas; A Spanish Christmas – The Boston Camerata/Joel Cohen, dir. – Warner Classics & Jazz (3 CDs) 2564 69415-0, 3 hours 17:11:

This is the perfect holiday collection for those who become Scroogey at this time of year due to the onslaught of overly-familiar carols in everything from overblown symphonic arrangements to hip-hop desecrations. As Joel Cohen points out in his liner notes, American culture is one of the most diverse and rich musical civilizations on the planet – yet the media and commercial outlets ignore our great musical heritage and feed us the same counterfeit culture each Christmas.

This collection focuses instead on early tunebook/folk/hymn repertory from 1770 to 1870.  It is music intended for amateurs and often not perfect technically, but it has a fresh, unselfconscious and natural life to it. And it’s not singing about red-nosed reindeers and jingle bells either. I only recognized three of all the songs in this section: I wonder as I wander, Adeste fideles and Joy to the world. The arrangements of those with instruments are beautifully performed.  The words too all the selections in the album are unfortunately not in the booklet, but can be accessed at the warnerclassicsandjazz.com website.

The French Christmas selections span four centuries and illustrate the many changes that took place in the society over that time period. Many of the carols and dances reflect the humble peasant culture, in contrast to the cultured liturgical music of the cathedrals. Several of the Renaissance dances are instrumental only and reminded me of the instrumental pieces in The Play of Daniel. There is a slightly exotic bent to the melodic lines of many of these carols which make them sound more beautiful to me than their English or German counterparts. The Spanish disc includes not just music of Spain, but draws from North Africa, the Holy Land and even the New World from 1200 thru 1700.  It encompasses Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Celtic, Indian and black African elements. Hispanic music of the New World has received some attention on discs recently, and the last ten tracks cover this genre, of which the most modern song comes from Hispanics in New Mexico, collected in 1953.

– John Sunier

A Very Pristine Christmas = A collection of music largely for Christmas – Pristine Audio PAMX005, www.pristineaudiodirect.com, (either download or actual CD-R available) 67:50:

Pristine Audio’s Christmas release with contributions from five of Pristine’s remastering team has some really worthwhile and interesting contents in this musical Christmas Stocking.

The Siena Pianoforte has an intriguing history, though reading references one finds some are sceptical about the later segments! This highly ornate keyboard instrument was built in 1800 as a wedding present for a Siena farmer and his wife. After being sent to the Paris Exhibition of 1867, it was given to Crown Prince Umberto the following year again as a wedding present. It surfaced in the North African desert during the Second World War and was taken to Palestine, where it again vanished and resurfaced. Several LPs were issued in the mid-1950s, including one made by Charles Rosen, and the one used here made by Grace Castagnetta in which she plays a selection of Christmas carols and tunes, used here as interludes to the whole programme. The instrument produces an interesting sound, and may well steer some listeners to the other discs.

The Flonzaley Quartet contributes two tracks, both carols recorded in 1928, and their distinctive tone comes over very well indeed in this excellent mastering. From the middle of the 20th century come two choral recordings, one with the Goldsborough Orchestra, the forerunner of the English Chamber Orchestra, with Alfred Deller among the singers, and the other with the choir of the Chapel Royal in Windsor – how vowel sounds have altered in sixty years, let alone the eighty years since the Westminster Abbey Special Choir recorded the Weelkes. The men have that woody sound one hears too in those famous Temple Church Choir recordings from the same era, the late 1920s.

Milhaud’s pieces for viola – portraits of four ladies and their characters – derive from a rare DGG recording from 1957, again sounding well in this transfer. The two orchestral pieces are also very finely transferred, a vigorously played overture to Hansel and Gretel, conducted by the great Albert Coates, whose reputation as a fine musician is undiminished, and a rarity, the Christmas Overture by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose all-too-short life makes one think what might have been had he lived longer. His biography “Black Mahler” by Charles Elford has been published very recently. Percy Pitt (1870-1932) was a busy conductor who made quite a few recordings, many pre-electric, and this electric one made in 1926 is particularly charming. Pitt was the first British conductor of Wagner’s Ring in an opera house.

All in all this is a diverting collection of transfers which should give a wide audience much pleasure.

1. Christmas Overture (Coleridge-Taylor) – BBC Wireless Orchestra, cond. Percy Pitt, UK Columbia 9137, rec. 23/2/1926
2. Joy To The World (Watts) – Siena Pianoforte played by Grace Castagnetta, Counterpoint CPT 1503, rec. 1957
3. Quatre Visages (Milhaud) – Michael Mann (viola), Dika Newlin (piano), DGG EPL 30295, rec. 1957 
1. La Californienne
2. The Wisconsonian
3. La Bruxelloise
4. La Parisienne
7. O Little Town of Bethlehem (Brooks) – Siena Pianoforte played by Grace Castagnetta, Counterpoint CPT 1503
8. In Ecclesiis (G. Gabrieli) – Alexander, Deller, Wynton, Riley, Dawkes, Chor. & Goldsbrough Orch, HMV HMS.29, rec.1950
9. Hark, The Herald Angels Sing (Mendelssohn) – Siena Pianoforte played by Grace Castagnetta, Counterpoint CPT 1503
10. Hansel and Gretel – Overture (Humperdinck) – Symphony Orchestra, cond. Albert Coates, HMV D.1261, rec. 26/10/1926
11. I Saw Three Ships (Trad.) – Siena Pianoforte played by Grace Castagnetta, Counterpoint CPT 1503
12. Te Deum in G (Vaughan Williams) – St George’s Chapel Choir, Windsor Castle, dir. Harris, Columbia LX.1289, rec. 1949
13. What Child Is This (Trad.) – Siena Pianoforte played by Grace Castagnetta, Counterpoint CPT 1503
14. Adeste Fideles (Wade, arr. Ponchon) – Flonzaley Quartet, Victor 1352, rec. 18/10/1928
15. Deck The Halls (Trad.) – Siena Pianoforte played by Grace Castagnetta, Counterpoint CPT 1503
16. Gloria in excelsis (Weelkes) -Westminster Abbey Special Choir, HMV H.1083, rec. 1925 or 1926
17. Oh, Holy Night  (Adam) – Siena Pianoforte played by Grace Castagnetta, Counterpoint CPT 1503
18. The First Nowell (Trad. arr. Ponchon) – Flonzaley Quartet, Victor 1352, rec. 18/10/1928

Transfers & remastering:  

1, 14, 18: Mark Obert-Thorn; 2, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17: Dr. John Duffy; 3-6: Peter Harrison; 8, 12, 16: Andrew Rose; 10: Ward Marston
All tracks in Ambient Stereo except 1, 10, 14, 18: mono.

 – Peter Joelson

“Christmas A Cappella” Songs from Around the World – Chicago A Cappella – Cedille CDR 90000 107, 64:10:

Chicago A Cappella is an 11-person ensemble and one of many choral groups in the Chicago area.  They have placed an emphasis on music of our own time in this 18-track collection – most of the songs were written or arranged in the last two decades. There are seven world premiere recordings here, including new arrangements of such classics as I Wonder as I Wander and Il est Né.  There are original Christmas-centered choral works from well composers such as Howard Helvey and Stephen Paulus. The ensemble is just the right size for a lovely choral blend and yet excellent intelligibility. Also, the thick note booklet contains a description as well as  the complete lyrics for each and every song. Fidelity of the original 24-bit recording is superb.

Yo-Yo Ma & Friends – Songs of Joy & Peace – Sony Classical 8697-24414-2 [TrackList below]:

Yo-Yo Ma’s star-studded holiday album has already been the most successful of his 30-year career.  It shows an original approach to the idea of a holiday season crossover album. Ma himself said that “as much as the music in this album is about joy, it is also about peace, about the two operating in tandem.”  There is also a deluxe version of the album as a dualdisc, with five music videos from the album plus a behind-the-scenes 60-minute documentary on the making of the album. (That one wasn’t provided for review.) To celebrate the release of the albums, Ma recorded the melody Dona Nobis Pacem and made it available for other musicians to add their tracks to it, creating a virtual music party. The theme is hosted at www.indabamusic.com, and when the project ends December 31 the Indaba community of musicians will vote to choose their favorites and then Ma will select one who will be given the opportunity to record with him. On this CD, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Paquito D’Rivera, Alon Yavnai, the Assad Brothers and Chris Botti have recorded their own improvisations on the Dona Nobis Pacem melody.  All 22 tracks here flow nicely from one to another and mix familiar tunes with the completely new in a festive fashion.

  1. Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace)
Yo-Yo Ma
  2. You Couldn’t Be Cuter
Yo-Yo Ma;Diana Krall
  3. Joy to the World
Yo-Yo Ma;Dave Brubeck
  4. Here Comes The Sun
Yo-Yo Ma;James Taylor
  5. Improvisation on Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace)
Edgar Meyer;Chris Thile
  6. The Wassail Song / All Through the Night
Yo-Yo Ma
  7. A Christmas Jig / Mouth of the Tobique Reel
Yo-Yo Ma;Natalie MacMaster
  8. The Wexford Carol
Yo-Yo Ma;Alison Krauss;Natalie MacMaster
  9. Panxoliña: a Galician Carol
Yo-Yo Ma;Cristina Pato
10. Improvisation on Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace)
Sérgio Assad;Odair Assad
11. Vassourinhas
Yo-Yo Ma
12. Improvisation on Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace)
Paquito D’Rivera
13. Invitación al Danzón
Yo-Yo Ma;Paquito D’Rivera
14. My One and Only Love
Yo-Yo Ma;Joshua Redman
15. Familia
Yo-Yo Ma
16. Concordia
Yo-Yo Ma;Dave Brubeck
17. My Favorite Things
Yo-Yo Ma;Chris Botti
18. Touch The Hand of Love
Yo-Yo Ma;Renée Fleming
19. Kuai Le
Yo-Yo Ma
20. This Little Light of Mine
Yo-Yo Ma;Amelia Zirin-Brown
21. Happy Xmas (War is Over)
Yo-Yo Ma;Jake Shimabukuro
22. Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace)/Auld Lang Syne

Tim Green & Trio Cambia – Change of Seasons – OA2 Records 22049  (Tim Green, piano & bass/Mark Maegdlin, drums & piano/Jake Vinsel, bass & drums):

Cambia comes from the Latin and means “change,” as is obvious from seeing the assignments of the trio members here. But the trio intends it to also have a broader meaning regarding changing perspectives and discovering new horizons. The trio must make an interesting little choreography when they perform in person!  The eight tracks are not the usual jazz Christmas album.  One is an improvisation just cooked up during the recording session.  I thought A Child Is Born was on my personal list of “punch the button to the next track” tunes, but I really enjoyed the subtle and non-showy improvisation on the tune Green provided at his piano. All the tunes are given swinging but not loud and raucous treatments, which makes this a fine CD for background holiday listening. Thanks to Tim Green for furnishing a holiday CD I don’t need to grit my teeth auditioning.

TrackList:  Do You Hear What I Hear?; Everything’s Alright; Little Altar Boy; Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow; Meditation I: Winter Morning; A Child is Born; Time for the Seasons; Linus and Lucy

Alison Brown Quartet with Joe Craven – Evergreen – Compass Records 7 4470 2:

(Alison Brown, banjo; John Burr, piano; Joe Craven, fiddle/mandolin/percussion; Garry West, bass; Larry Atamanuik & David Heyer, drums)

Bela Fleck has been bending new ears with his banjo virtuosity, so why not a holiday CD featuring re-workings of some of the classics for banjo and a sort of bluegrass-derived band?  Alison Brown changed from an investment banking career to be a banjo-playing musician, and judging from the great sound of her quartet on these 11 tracks, she did the right thing (and perhaps at the right time too, if it was recently).  The fiddle and mandolin of Joe Craven in the guest spot adds a nice touch thruout the album, and on two of the tracks Alison brings in a local Nashville school chorale.  This CD achieves a truly different sound for holiday music and is still musically viable and fun listening.

TrackList: Carol and the Kings, Sleight Ride, Two Santas, Christmas Don’t Be Late, O’Carolan’s /Welcome Christmas, Skating/Feliz Navidad, Silver Bells, Let It Snow, Christmas Time is Here, The Little Drummer

Straight No Chaser – Holiday Spirits – Atco/Atlantic 515785-2:

Straight No Chaser is a ten-man a cappela chorus which has been a big splash on YouTube with their highly-confused version of The 12 Days of Christmas – which is on this CD but of course without the visuals. I noticed the Enhanced CD credit and eagerly clicked on the logo on my Mac to see The 12 Days of Christmas video. It wasn’t there – only a screen to send them your email for a track download not included on the CD.  

Yes, it starts off with some cornball selections, but in general this is a well-performed and well-recorded a capella album with clever arrangements.


  1. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
  2. Jingle Bell Rock
  3. The Christmas Song
  4. This Christmas
  5. Christmas Wish
  6. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing/Angels We Have Heard On High
  7. Little Saint Nick
  8. The 12 Days Of Christmas [Live]
  9. Indiana Christmas
10. Sweet Little Jesus Boy
11. Christmas [Baby Please Come Home]
12. Carol Of The Bells
13. Silent Night
14. Auld Lang Syne

Spyro Gyra – A Night Before Christmas – Heads Up  HUCD 3145:

(Jay Beckenstein, saxes; Tom Schuman, piano; Julio Fernandez, guitar; Scott Ambush, doublebass; Bonny B, drums)

The leader of these five talented innovators, Jay Beckenstein on sax, reported that the band always wanted to do a more straight ahead jazz record than what they usually do, and he felt a holiday album was the perfect place to do arrangements that were a little more acoustic and traditional. The band has been around for over three decades now, pushing a rather unique sound that has incorporated the best elements of jazz with R&B, pop, Latin and other influences.

They kicked off the proceedings with an improvisation on the traditional O Tannenbaum. For the second track they brought in vocalist Christine Ebersole.  They continued with guest artists Janis Siegel (from Manhattan Transfer) singing on Baby It’s Cold Outside, their own drummer Bonny B joining her on that one as well as The Christmas Song, and terrific vibist Dave Samuels on both Carol of the Bells and Winter Wonderland. The latter’s vibes added a holiday chime sound to this swinging but tasteful jazz holiday CD.  I was only sorry it wasn’t available in a SACD surround version as of the other Spyro Gyra releases.

  1. O Tannenbaum
  2. It Won’t Feel Like Christmas
  3. Winter Wonderland
  4. Christmas Time Is Here
  5. Baby It’s Cold Outside
  6. Carol Of The Bells
  7. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
  8. The First Noel
  9. Silent Night
10. This Christmas
11. The Christmas Song

– John Sunier

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