Xmas Tree!

Auditioning Christmas CDs
December 2001
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I'm stretching the usual survey of Christmas CDs this time to include some that are quite different from the expected carols and popular classics. You'll also find two more Christmas discs in the SACD section this month.


JOHN ADAMS: El Niño - Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Dawn Upshaw, Willard White - vocal soloists/Paul Hillier Theatre of Voices/London Voices/German Symphony Orch., Berlin/Kent Nagano - Nonesuch 79634-2 (2 Cds):

Best described as a Nativity Oratorio, Adams latest stage work combines acting singers, dancers, and occasional film. The vocal/choral texts are sung in English, Spanish and Latin and come from poems by Hispanic writers, Hildegard von Bingen and others, passages from the Bible, New Testament Apocrypha and the Wakefield Mystery Plays. Musically the score visits pop, Baroque, folk and street music, but always filtered thru the distinctive creative voice of John Adams. The work's subject is not just the special Christian story of a birth but the story of the miracle of birth in general.

The Spanish title Adams chose shows the Hispanic slant of the oratorio. The composer has said that "the intensity and genuineness of Latin American art and culture is one of the great gifts one receives by living in California." One of the major sections of El Nino is centered on a poem lament concerning a bloody attack in l968 on protestors in a Mexico City public square. Towards the end of the work children's tales from the Apocrypha will be sure to raise eyebrows with their dramatizations of scenes from the Jesus' childhood, such as the infant facing down a cave full of dragons. While Adams hasn't exactly come up with his own Messiah (as he modestly admitted he was hoping at the start of the project), El Nino is a very pertinent and diversified work full of lovely melody and poetic expression. After hearing it I would love to see the live production, which was staged by Peter Sellars.

- John Sunier

TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker Suite - Interpreted by The Classical Jazz Quartet (arr. By Bob Belden) - Vertical Jazz 5507-2:

This is not the first jazzy Nutcracker - even the Ellington band did their own interpretation (which included their version of The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy - "Sugar, Rum, Cherry.") It's a very tasteful and light-hearted chamber jazz take on Tchaikovsky's familiar tunes. The quartet is made up of vibist marimbist Stefon Harris, pianist Kenny Barron, the great Ron Carter on acoustic bass and drummer Lewis Nash. The quartet also has fun with the titles of the movements. Their version of the above classic becomes "Groove of the Sugar Plum Fairy." Superb sound and classy production from this new-to-me jazz label.

- John Sunier


A Venetian Christmas - Music of G. GABRIELI & DE RORE - Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh -Archiv 289 471 333-2:

The idea of this lovely album is the aural creation of a First Mass of Christmas at St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice around the year 1600. The ostentatious public displays of the wealthy Venetian merchant rulers came to a peak in the ceremonial solemnity of the Christmas season, and were reflected in the gold-leafed tiles of the ornate St. Marks. The notes' description of the settings is fascinating, such as the thousands of candles and oil lamps that illuminated the interior brighter than noonday. Instrumental music was more prominent in Venice liturgical events and the spatial canzons for brass by the Gabrielis were designed to reverberate around the massive spaces of St. Marks. Composer Cipriano de Rore was not familiar to me; excerpts from one of his choral masses are woven into the vocal and instrumental selections by Gabrieli. The recording was made in a reverberant priory in the UK; I hope in multichannel so we can eventually hear this as the 17th century Venetians did: in high-res. surround sound.

- John Sunier


A Very Classical Christmas - Selections from The Nutcracker, Messiah, and more - Sonos Handbell Ensemble, with flutist Timothy Day - Well Tempered Productions WTP 5191:

The adherence to the originals in these transcriptions of orchestral classics for a handbell choir is quite amazing. All the important notes seem to get played by the 13-member ensemble, joined by flutist Day. In addition to the suite from The Nutcracker and six hits from Handel's Messiah, we have some other short favorites from Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart. It's their fourth CD for this label; their previous three have brought their highly skilled tintinnabulations to a whole new listening public not previously prone to collecting handbell CDs. Very clean and precise sonics which would probably be even more dynamic sounding with proper decoding of the HDCD-encoded disc,which at this juncture I am unable to do.

Mittens for Christmas - Kirkmount - Dorian DOR-93236:

Now there's a welcome and different name for a Christmas album. Kirkmount is a folksy instrumental trio consisting of a fiddle player, a second member who doubles on harp and bones, and rounded out by a third playing cello and an obscure Celtic instrument known as a Bodbran. All three players are brothers from the same family in Nova Scotia and they play the same Celtic music their ancestors played in the village of Kirkmount there. The 14 tracks are mostly familiar carols, with a few Celtic jigs here and there. The folksy but very precise mix of instruments is a delight, especially in the crystalline sonics provided by Dorian. I think this CD will hog a slot on my CD changer this holiday season.

- John Sunier

Our Favorite Things - Christmas in Vienna with Tony Bennett, Charlotte Church, Placido Domingo, Vanessa Williams, Ralph Sharon Quartet, Gumpoldskirchnerspatzen Children's Choir, Vienna Symphony/Steven Mercurio - Sony Classical SK 89468:

This was the soundtrack for a live concert taped for telecast last year in Vienna; perhaps it will be scheduled on TV in the U.S. This year. It's a really big production with big stars, big arrangements and a big sound (except for the rather small voices of both young thrushes.) The 20 tunes strive for variety with various combinations of singers - some solos, some duos, a couple trios and for a grand final the quartet joining in on Silent Night. While vocal perfectionists might wish for more mature, more talented, (even if more avoirdupois) choices in the two female singers, the visual aspect demanded another approach (as it always does on TV) and we have instead this nice to look at but not necessarily always to hear production.

Glass Harmonica - Works by BEETHOVEN, MOZART, DONIZETTI, APELL, BLOCH, HOLT SOMBACH, NAUMANN, REICHARDT, ROLLIG, SCHULZ - Thomas Bloch, glass harmonica - Naxos 8.555295:

No, this isn't really a Christmas CD, but there's something about the unique tinkly sound of the glass harmonica that makes it sound extremely Christmasy to my ears. Then there is a final track here that comes close to seasonal music - an original Sancta Maria by the performer on the instrument -with four multitracked vocal parts laid over it by a male soprano. That's old Ben Franklin there in the cover picture playing his own invention, the nested-glass-bowls instrument which became all the rage in the late 18th century and had many composers writing specifically for it - including Mozart and Beethoven. Some of these are solo pieces; others are chamber works and a few vocal compositions. Several are heard in their world premiere recordings. It may be due to the work's familiarity, but Mozart's exquisite Adagio and Rondo, accompanied by flute, oboe, viola and cello, still stands out as the most successful piece for this unique instrument.

- John Sunier


Christmas at Trinity - Choir of Trinity Church, NCY/Owen Burdick, organist & director - Naxos 8.555886:

New York's Trinity Church has a strong connection to the history of Christmas music: It was the site of the New World premieres of both Handel's Messiah and Silent Night. Their program presents 23 gems of holiday music, mostly familiar carols but also some more unusual items such as Gabriel's Message, and Resonet in Laudibus. A chamber orchestra also participates. The large church's acoustic space is captured well by only a pair of Neumann mikes (and any matrix decoder will provide excellent surround sound with it). Recorded in February of this year, all proceeds of sales of this CD go to the 9-11 Charitable Fund.

- John Sunier

Les Grande Airs de Noel - Christmas Greatest Songs - various ensembles - Analekta AN2-9125-6 (2 CDs):

This French Canadian production of 31 tracks total features a variety of performing groups both vocal and instrumental. Among them are the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal, La Bande Magnetik, Choeur Les Rhapsodes, soprano Lyne Fortin, and a folk group called Strada. The program is mostly popular French carols but with some from other British and U.S. Sources, including entries from such as Irving Berlin, Jose Feliciano and John Lennon. The variety of the different groups makes the program more attractive, and sonics are first rate.

- John Sunier


Christmas Adagios - compilation - Decca 289 486 503-2 (2 CDs):

It was a small New Age label which originated the idea of stringing together the slow movements of classical concertos and symphonies to provide a tranquil and peaceful mood to harried listeners. Now many labels have jumped on the idea and variations on it to reissue yet again materials in their catalog in new forms. (The Mozart to Make You Smarter gimmick albums are part of this strategy as well.)

Decca (formerly London here in the U.S.) certainly has plenty to draw on from their gigantic discography. Some of their previous efforts have been Mozart Adagios, Vivaldi Adagios, Violin Adagios and Romantic Adagios. So naturally here we go with Christmas Adagios - hard to mess up since most music of the season is pretty peaceful-sounding anyway. The focus here is on high quality music of the season and eschewing the cornier carols, songs about snowmen, etc. Just a sampling of the performers heard during this over 2 1/2-hour program: Leontyne Price, The Vienna Choir Boys, Academy and Chorus of St. Martin in the Fields, Renata Tebaldi, organist Simon Preston, The Choir of King's College, Pavarotti, English Chamber Orchestra, Kiri Te Kanawa, St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, Monteverdi Choir, Romanian National Chamber Choir, The Bach Choir, Suisse Romande Orchestra, London Symphony, Choir of Winchester Cathedral, Miglieder of the Vienna Philharmonic/Von Karajan, National Philharmonic Orch./Kurt Herbert Adler. A lot of fine holiday music in one package.

- John Sunier

A Choral Christmas at Trinity Church in the City of Boston - The Trinity Choir/Brian Jones, dir./Michael Kleinschmidt, organist - Dorian DOR-93240:

In this album produced as part of the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the church, it is revealed that the Rector of the new church was also the composer of O Little Town of Bethlehem. The selection of Christmas music sets a higher standard than most similar programs, emphasizing more contemporary liturgical works and arrangements by modern arrangers rather than the usual over-exposed carols. There are several works by popular choral composer John Rutter, one by Poulenc, and several by English composers: Holst, Gerald Near, John Gardner and Michael Head. The church has a pair of pipe organs and the choir is supplemented by a harpist, flutist and additional percussion on some of the selections. Dorian's transparent choral sonics show up the muddy sonic quality of many other choral CDs.

- John Sunier

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