Christmas CD Grab Bag

by | Dec 9, 2007 | Special Features | 0 comments

It’s that time of year again, and we’ve already been reviewing a number of fine classical releases that tie into the holiday season. This special feature will ten other CDs we’ve received which we feel might brighten your holiday listening experiences – well, most of them anyway. We’ve filtered out some really awful ones to protect your ears and sense of good taste; this seems to be one of the worst years yet for holiday music CDs.  Not just inane stuff of the All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth variety, but raunchy tunes full of expletives…

Christmas Break – A relaxing classical mix – Telarc sampler CD-80687, 49:56:

A large audiophile label such as Telarc has plenty of library to select from for a Christmas sampler, and this is not their first by any means. You can’t go wrong with this varied classical and traditional mix of 16 selections in first-class sonics.

1. Hark the Herald Angels Sing/He Is Born the Child Divine – Michael Chertock
2. Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella – Yolanda Kondonassis
3. Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming – Robert Shaw
4. The First Nowell – Robert Shaw
5. Pifa (Pastoral Symphony) From Handel’s Messiah – Boston Baroque
6. Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring – David Russell
7. I Wonder As I Wonder – Mormon Tabernacle Choir
8. Fantasia On Greensleeves – Leonard Slatkin
9. Still, Still, Still – Yolanda Kondonassis
10. Whence Is That Goodly Fragrance? – Mormon Tabernacle Choir
11. In the Bleak Midwinter – Robert Shaw
12. Largo From Vivaldi’s the Four Seasons: Winter – Joseph Silverstein
13. Ave Maria – Yolanda Kondonassis
14. Coventry Carol – Laurie Monahan15. Angels We Have Heard On High – Yolanda Kondonassis
16. Silent Night/Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus – Michael Chertock

Snowcarols – Christmas Music by WILLIAM FERRIS – William Ferris Chorale/Composer Festival Orchestra/ Paul French/ Paul Nicholson, organ – Cedille Records CDR 900000 101, 70:25:

We raved about a previous Cedille CD featuring this chorale, and now we have a program of original Christmas music by the founder of the chorale. William Ferris headed the music theory department at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago in 1979.  Braving a serious snowstorm, he made it to his classroom with not a student there. He began looking thru an old hymnal and decided pass the time by seeing if he could produce his own setting of a particular text. This effort grew into his Snowcarols, which take up the last five tracks of this 14-track CD.  The other nine are various settings of texts for Ferris’ favorite holy day, coming from his Catholic background.

Gregorian chant and polyphony are at the basis of Ferris’ work; he also studied with organist/composer Leo Sowerby, and has a love for the emotional power of Italian opera.  His music is full of long-lined melodies and reveal a highly skilled and tonal composer.  Both the chorale and orchestra are superb. The recording was made in a church venue, not a studio, and text for all selections are provided in the note booklet.  A highly recommended example of some new sounds at Christmas!

TrackList: The Lord Said to Me, Gentle Mary, Lift Up Your Heads, Infant Holy Infant Lowly, O Mary of Graces, Long is Our Winter, Hail Mary, Come Lord and Tarry Not, Creator of the Stars of Night; Snowcarols: The snow lies think upon the earth tonight, The snow lay on the ground, In the bleak midwinter, See amid the winter snow, Christmas Eve.

TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker Suite; PROKOFIEV: Lieutenant Kijé; DUKAS: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – St. Petersburg Philharmonic/ Yuri Temirkanov – EMI Classics 5 1127220, 58:50:

Probably there’s not many classical collections lacking at least  one recording of The Nutcracker Suite, but this is a bright and energetic version in excellent sonics, and part of a rather unusual programming of three concert chestnuts which seem to be most fitting for the Christmas season. The St. Petersburg symphony is the oldest symphonic ensemble in Russia, with origins that can be traced back as far as 1802.  Since the death of Mravinsky in l988 Temirkanov has been the No. 1 conductor/music director in the city.  The recording was made in the orchestra’s home – the Grand Philharmonic Hall in St. Petersburg. Since the two major selections are by Russian composers, you couldn’t do better than performances by Russian musicians.

Prokofiev’s Kijé Suite is a delightful satirical score making fun of the Tsar and military snafus. The St. Petersburg performance of the suite sounded more good-natured and lighter than some others I’ve heard.  The closing Sorcerer’s Apprentice is of course the music that Stokowski conducted for the Mickey Mouse stint in the original Fantasia.  The Russian play it rather straight, without the souping up of Stoky’s arrangement. Both Kijé and L’apprenti make one think of toys and games, and so fit into the Christmas theme from that angle as well.

Organ Music for Christmas – Michael-Christfried Winkler, organ – Berlin Classics 0013812BC, 73:15 [Distr. by Albany]:

This 1992 retread comes in very formidable sound, and has a nice program concept to boot. The first twelve tracks are played on a real honey of an instrument, the Silbermann organ in Reinhardtsgrimma, a town in Saxony/Germany located near Dresden. It was built between 1729 and 1731, and features two manuals and a pedal. The picture in the booklet shows it to be of moderate size, but the colors Winkler draws from it are anything but common. Dresden is evidently littered with these sorts of astounding instruments in relatively small churches and chapels. This particular organ is used for early to late Baroque music all related to—you guessed it—the Christmas season.

The second half, also dedicated to the same, concentrates on the Romantic to modern aspects of the feast as applied to organ, beginning with some chorale hymns by Max Reger, and ending up with, of all people, Messiaen. This time Winkler takes us to another locale, the Jehmlich organ of Kreuzkirche, also in Dresden. This 6,111-pipe behemoth is a romantic music lovers’ dream, consisting of five organs (Great, Choir, Pedal, Swell, and Echo) that are capable of maintaining all of the varied registrations that Reger through Messiaen might require. Built in 1961-63, it has fine color, good nuance, and massive sound, though I must confess that the Silbermann strikes me as more affectionate.

This makes for a lively alternative to the tried and true of the season, bringing a degree of spirituality and reflection back to the speakers after so much jingling and jangling and mistletoe. Mr. Winkler has a pedigree like few others, and his performances would seem to justify the accolades. Warmly recommended.

Andreas Kneller: Nun komm, der heiden Heiland
WF Bach: Nun komm, der heiden Heiland
Georg Friedrich Kauffmann: Nun komm, der heiden Heiland
JS Bach: Nun komm, der heiden Heiland BVW 579
Matthias Weckman: Magnificat II. Toni
Georg Bohm: Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her
JS Bach: Fuga sopra il Magnificat BWV 733
Georg Friedrich Kauffmann: O Jesulein suss
Michael Praetorious: Es ist ein Ros entsprungen
Max Reger: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, op. 67 no. 29
Max Reger: Macht hoch die Tur, op. 135a no. 16
Max Reger: Lobt Gott, ihr Christen alle gleich, op. 67 no. 23
Max Reger: Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her, op. 135a no.24
Max Reger:Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Her, op.135a no. 2
Max Reger:Wie schon leucht’t uns der Morgenstern, op. 135a no. 29
Johannes Brahms: Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, op. 122 no. 8
Johann Georg Albrechtsberger: Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich
Max Reger: Weihnachten, op. 145 no. 3
Olivier Messaien: Les Mages

The New Voice of Christmas – Ryland Angel, tenor – Koch Records KOC-CD-4458, 43:33:

From Ryland Angel’s website: “Born and raised in Bristol, England, Ryland first sang as a chorister at Bristol Cathedral. His father served as Dean at Trinity College, while his mother had trained as an opera singer. Though grounded in classical music, Ryland loved pop, and even saved up to buy a Korg M1 keyboard. Ryland moved to Paris to undertake a serious study of music. There he met Kentucky native Bryce Johnson who later became his Austin-based writing partner. Eventually Ryland began singing with many prestigious ensembles, among them Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the Ensemble of Early Music of New York and Les Arts Florissants. He’s performed at the New York City Opera, the English National Opera, Carnegie Hall, the Opéra National de Paris and many more, covering every important work in the countertenor repertoire”.

This is my first exposure to Ryland Angel, evidently a man seriously drawn between the classical and pop traditions. So often—so often—those who straddle this particular fence end up demeaning and detracting from the virtues of each genre. I have seen it happen time and time again, and in the jazz/classical worlds as well. The question is, does it happen here?

Yes and no. For instance, after singing a number of verses of “Let all mortal flesh keep silent”, which has nothing to do with Christmas, by the way, and singing very straight, he gets dramatic on the last notes and bends them a little in pop style, something that struck me as playing to the pop crowd and not a little display of stylistic incongruousness. There are many other small examples, but basically he does stick to a purer classical line while avoiding any semblance of “opera” singing in the traditional manner. But this is not classical singing.

Most of this album is done in tight vocal harmony, with the singer providing a multi-tracked session to accomplish as much with his own voice. Herein lays the biggest fault of the album. When I got to the last track, “What Child is this?” it was a relief to hear a very engaging and creative guitar accompaniment. Angel should have not been so preoccupied with his own voice to think that he could sustain 45 minutes or so with nothing but. His vocals in combination with a more integrated instrumental accompaniment could have been dynamite. As it is, the album remains a great “what if?” The sound is clear, quite blaring (it appears to have been recorded at a very high level) with lots of reverb mixed in. The man does have talent. Your call.

Gabriel’s Message
Away in a Manger
The Little Road to Bethlehem
Un Flambeau
Lully lulla
Silent Night
O Holy Night
I Wonder as I Wander
The Truth Sent from Above
Brightest and Best
O Come, Emmanuel
Tomorrow shall be My Dancing Day
Be Thou My Vision
In the Bleak Midwinter
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent
What Child is This?

ANDREW T. MILLER: The Birth of Christ, a Christmas Cantata – Liam Neeson, narrator/6 vocal soloists/uncredited chorus/Andrew T. Miller, director – Sony Classical 88697-16683-2:

This recording was made at the premiere of this new cantata last year in Dublin, Ireland.  Composer Miller, a native of Seattle, wrote the work to underscore the universality of the Christmas story, and the power of music to overcome conflict and strife. He arranged for the assembled chorus to consist of both Protestant and Catholic singers, putting aside their differences for one night to raise their voices together.  The chorus brought together members of some historic choirs – the same choirs which in Handel’s time had participated in the premiere of his Messiah in 1742.

This is not the same old version of the Christmas story, but a more contemporary and emotional treatment emphasizing the humanity of the figures involved. The music is equally dramatic in many passages.  The warm acoustics of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin support these many voices raised in peace and unity.

TrackList: Introduction by Liam Neeson, Prologue: One Blessed Night, The Annunciation of John, The Annunciation of Christ, The Visitation, Mary’s Canticle, Rejoice!, Journey to Bethlehem, The Birth of Christ, A Shepherd’s Song, Epilogue: One Blessed Night (reprise).

“On Christmas Eve” – Boston String Quartet – Groove Records:

Most of this 13-track CD is devoted to selections from the Nutcracker Suite transcribed for string quartet – a nice idea and skillfully played the Boston Quartet.  There have been some other string quartet Christmas CDs, and it’s a lovely alternative sound for the holiday season.  But I find this CD guilty of deceptive advertising, because nowhere on the jewel box does it reveal that four vocal tracks are spaced thru the album, and I find them inappropriate.  The one coming from Fred Waring could squeak by, but the songs from Mariah Cary and the Carpenters are just too much of a wrenching change from the string quartet in my estimation.

Lena Horne – Merry from Lena – DRG/EMI Living Legends Series 77503:

If you want popular Christmas songs sung by a real pro, here’s your CD.  It was originally issued in 1966 with bandleader Ray Ellis as the producer. The arrangements are tasteful and terrific and Horne is, well, one of the greats of all time.  I even liked her version of Little Drummer Boy – a tune which normally drives me up the wall. Sonics are excellent too.

TrackList: Jingle All the Way, The Christmas Song, Winter Wonderland, White Christmas, Let It Snow!3, The Little Drummer Boy, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Silent Night, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.

“The Cool Season” – Origin Records Holiday Collection Vol. 2 – Origin 82494, 49:12 {Distr. by Allegro]:

(Thomas Marriott, trumpet/Flugelhorn; Bill Anschell, piano; Jeff Johnson, doublebass; John Bishop, drums)

Not sure why this is called a holiday collection since all nine tracks feature the same quartet.  Wasn’t familiar with the musicians but they have a fine sound featuring the trumpet or Flugelhorn.  The selection of tunes takes  some unexpected turns: the opener is one from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special on TV, there’s a remake of Willie Nelson’s holiday-country tune Pretty Paper, and things are round off with the gorgeous Alex Wilder tune Blackberry Winter. The quartet’s bassist also contributes two originals.

TrackList: Christmas Time is Here, The Christmas Song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Winter Wonderland, Winter Solace, Pretty Paper, Skating, Sing We Now of Christmas, Blackberry Winter.

Jazz Yule Love II – Mack Avenue MAC 1029, 48 minutes:

Every year there seems to be one really enjoyable Christmas jazz sampler out, with a variety of performers doing just one or two holiday numbers each. This one seems to be it for this year – and it’s also the one we’re warding to a dozen readers at the end of December!  It’s the second volume from the Mack Avenue label and features a number of their best performers celebrating some of the festive favorites of the season.  My personal favs were the two tracks by the Hot Club of Detroit and the Bud Shank Quartet doing Let It Snow, but you’ll have your own top tracks I’m sure. Sonics are tops, and after hearing this one you’ll want to go back and pick up Volume 1 as well.  Here’s the run-down:


Let It Snow
Bud Shank Quartet

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Instrumental)
Sean Jones

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Hot Club Of Detroit

Chipmunk Song
Hot Club Of Detroit

Dance Natal (Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairies)
Oscar Castro-Neves

O Holy Night
Sean Jones

Air On A Six String
Oscar Castro-Neves
Jingle Bells
The Gerald Wilson Orchestra

Another Year
Jr. Oscar Brown

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Vocal)
Ilona Knopfler

I’ll Be Home For Christmas
Ilona Knopfler


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