Christmas Discs Survey

by | Nov 21, 2005 | Special Features | 0 comments

Christmas Discs Special Feature

It’s that time of the year again, and across our desks have come
recordings of holiday music and stories to share.  Here’s a few
that caught our ears:

PAST & PRESENT: A unique collection of carols spanning 500 years –
Ex Cathedra Chamber Choir conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore – Resonance CD
RSN 354 (59 mins.):

A totally charming, refreshingly unconventional program, recorded in
1994 and reissued at mid-price, this is one of a surprisingly large
number of holiday CDs that will make the perfect holiday gift for music
lovers who want the warmth of the season without the usual routine. In
this case, the presentation captures a strong sense of Ex Cathedra’s
live performances, and the breadth of its Christmas repertoire.

The first two pieces set the context for the entire recital, in which
music from contrasting periods and aesthetic sensibilities offset each
other in a succession of celebratory glory. William Mathias’s “Sir
Christmas,” an energetic piece which often closes the first half of the
choir’s holiday programs, the singers extinguishing their candles on
the final jubilant shout “Nowell!” is followed by the comforting beauty
of a chorale from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio which, through the
contrasts, takes on almost indecently sumptuous beauty.

Other highlights of the CD, to mention just a few, include the ethereal
beauty of a Czech carol and a very jolly, definitely Pickwickian “Hark,
the Herald Angels Sing.” The well-judged performances manage to keep a
feeling of spontaneity without sacrificing polish or poise.

The sound, recorded at St. Paul’s Church in Birmingham, where the choir
is based, combines purity with deliciously subtle reverberation,
enhancing the physical quality of the voices and the

– Laurence Vittes

– Carols & Chants for Christmas – Anonymous 4. 4-CD boxed set: 1:
Legends of St. Nicholas; 2: Wolcum Yule; 3 On Yoolis Night; A Star in
the East – Harmonia mundi HMX  2907411-14 ****:

After an 18 year career this purist a cappella female quartet of voices
has decided (as of last year) to discontinue being a full-time touring
and recording ensemble, and only get together for special projects and
appearances. Well, they didn’t even need to assemble for this album,
because it is a reissue of some of their holiday-themed recordings from
1993 to 2003. The first disc is devoted to medieval European chant and
polyphony, the second to Celtic and British songs and carols of the
Christmas season, the third to medieval carols and motets, and the
fourth to Hungarian Christmas music of the medieval period.  On
the Celtic album the 4 are accompanied by Irish harpist and
psaltery-player Andrew Lawrence-King.

Besides being newly-remastered with probably better sonics than the
originals of a decade ago, this set comes with a lavish 156-page
illustrated booklet (in English and French) which presents an
introduction to each of the four discs, complete words to every song,
and individual descriptions for many of them.  Some of the
background is quite fascinating, such as the alternate legends about
St. Nicolas, which have him as a sort of early superhero who dealt much
more cruely with bad people than just leaving coal in their stockings.

All the Anonymous 4 recordings are highly researched musicologically
and beautifully recorded in reverberant spaces which add support to the
voices and make the listener feel one is in a medieval cathedral or
similar space listening to the music.  Their intonation is perfect
and the polyphony fits together with greatest smoothness and accuracy.
Each disc as 19 to 24 different selections on it. Please excuse my not
listing them all herewith.
The Anonymous 4 proved that early polyphony and chant has a ready
market if presented properly.  This set would be a most Wolcom
Yoolis Night gift for any collector of early or choral music.

– John Sunier

Dickens Classics = “A Christmas Carol,” starring Ronald Colman as
Scrooge and Victor Young, musical director;  “Mr. Pickwick’s
Christmas” told by Charles Laughton with music by Hanns Eisler – DGG
mono 00289 477 5742, 39:47 ****:

Now here’s a different sort of Christmas recording that could well
become a tradition in families (as was Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s
Christmas in Wales” in a family I knew). The dramatization featuring
Colman with a large supporting cast, sound effects and music, was made
in l941 – probably for a radio broadcast. Among the actors whose names
might still ring a bell with senior readers: Hans Conried (as Jacob
Marley’s ghost), Gale Gordon (Guildersleeve – remember?). The Laughton
reading of excerpts from the Christmas chapter of The Pickwick Papers
was done in l944 and is sure to leave any listener smiling.  Both
original recordings have been skillfully noise-reduced and presented in
the best possible sonics.

– John Sunier

Be Home for Christmas – The David Leonhardt Jazz Group (Leonhardt,
piano; Nancy Reed, vocalist; Larry McKenna, sax; Taro Okamoto, drums;
Matthew Parrish, bass) Big Bang Records BBR9576, 64:26 ****

There’s plenty of jazz Christmas albums out there.  My favorite is
still the Columbia (now Sony) sampler from a couple decades ago that
has been reissued with various titles.  It has tracks by Brubeck,
Ellington and others but my favorite is Bob Dorough’s Blue Christmas –
a Scroogie-sort of take on the holidays.  But this new
self-published CD is the best in this genre I’ve heard this season so
far.  Leonhardt says in the notes that his band has been together
for some years and plays these tunes every holiday season. (I
empathize: at this time of year I like to play the only one I do a jazz
version of – We Three Kings.) His enjoyment of them comes thru – I
don’t get the feeling this disc came about due to pressure from his
record company (since there isn’t any, really). McKenna is a fine
saxist, and although I tend to prefer all-instrumental Christmas jazz,
Nancy Reed’s a good vocalist in these standards. The sound is
thoroughly professional.

Tracks: Let It Snow; Oh Christmas Tree; Winter Wonderland; We Three
Kings; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Jingle Bells, Santa
Claus is Comin’s to Town, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, God Rest You
Merry, Sleigh Ride, It Came Upon, Frosty the Snowman, The Christmas
Song, Here Comes Santa Claus, White Christmas.

 – John Henry

The Nutcracker (complete ballet); Serenade in C Major – London Symphony
Orchestra; Philharmonia Hungarica/ Antal Dorati – Mercury Living
Presence 3-channel multichannel SACD 475 6623, (2 Discs: 41:01, 68:00)

This is the season of the most-performed ballet, The Nutcracker, and
you can’t go wrong with this sparkling version from 1962, made in the
acoustically-acclaimed Watford Town Hall in the UK.  The
three-channel version provides a larger stage setting in both width and
depth and enlarges the sweet spot for those listening, but the
two-channel option is very close, especially if your center channel
speaker is not matched closely to your left and right frontal speakers.
Some may even prefer to feed the stereo SACD option thru their Pro
Logic II processing for an enveloping surround field. This was one of
the Mercuries mastered onto 35mm magnetic film and has a lower hiss
level and more gutsy sonics  than the Serenade filler which was
done on standard magnetic tape.

It’s fun to hear the less-familiar music of the complete ballet mixed
in with the big hits such as the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and
Waltz of the Flowers.  Dorati retains a strong dance feeling in
his version which seems to conjure up the familiar ballet characters on
your soundstage. The original notes and cover art from the original
Mercury LPs are reproduced with the SACDs. I recall the excitement when
those LPs were first issued – they were packaged and printed as
something very special, and soundwise they clearly were – even on the
less sophisticated cartridges and tonearms back then, which
occasionally had trouble negotiating the gutsy groove geometry which
Mercury cut into their discs!

– John Sunier

Baroque Christmas Album – Works of BACH, CHARPENTIER, G. GABRIELI,
SCHUTZ, CORELLI, PRAETORIUS – Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque
Soloists, The English Concert, Gabrieli Consort, Boys’ &
Congregational Choir of Roskilde Cathedral, Musicians of the Louvre
& Choir – John Eliot Gardiner/Paul McCreesh/ Marc Minkowski/Trevor
Pinnock – Archiv B0005271-02, 69:55 ****:

Another Christmas reissue opportunity, but with the huge catalog at the
disposal of DGG there was no problem bringing together 70 minutes of
superb music of the season which originated in the  Baroque
period.  Charpentier is prominent, represented by three works, of
which the first is a delightful Noëls on Instruments played by The
English Concert on authentic instruments. Giovanni Gabrieli, he of the
first music especially created for spatial performance, also gets three
selections – some of the striking brass sonorities of his canzonas
featuring brass instruments (too bad it’s not a multichannel
disc).  Both the Schutz works and three of the four concluding
hymns by Praetorius feature a boys’ choir. The fourth work is one of
the composer’s few for solo pipe organ. The entire disc is a fine
musical compendium for Yultide.

– John Sunier

Christmas Day – New Carols from King’s – Choir of King’s College,
Cambridge/ Stephen Cleobury – Carols by RICHARD RODNEY BENNETT, ARVO
ADES, NICHOLAS MAW, STEPHEN PAULUS and others – EMI Classics 5 580702,
(2 Discs: 58:40 & 32:29) ****:

Upon close inspection it is evident this is not just a collection of
the usual carols sung by the well-known King’s College Choir. Every
Christmas Eve since 1918 the choir has celebrated A Festival of Nine
lessons and Carols in the King’s College Chapel. Director Cleobury
assumed his post in l982 and determined to bring contemporary music
into the liturgies. He commissioned a new carol from a different
composer every Christmas as an effort to bring new music to a large
audience (the concerts had been broadcast since1928). A wide variety of
composers have provided new carols each season – including some not
associated with liturgical or choral music at all. There are 22
different composers in all here, each represented by one carol. Some
are a cappela, some with pipe organ, and a lovely one by Giles Swayne
has a solo flutist join the choir.  The words to all the carols
are in the note booklet. I must admit that choral liturgical music is
not one of my personal favorite genres, but I found this collection
infinitely more interesting than the usual assembly of familiar carols.

– John Sunier

MERRY CHRISTMAS compendium – DG Original Masters Series – DG 000506802 (2 CDs, 2 hrs. 24 mins.) ****:

This totally delightful, heartwarming follow-up to its highly
successful Christmas Album, released in 2003, continues DG’s survey of
music produced during the 1950s. Familiar faces and voices appear once
more, joined by once prominent artists retrieved from the label’s
seemingly inexhaustible archives. 25 of the 50 tracks are new to CD;
and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recording of Adolphe Adam’s Cantique de
Noël marks its first appearance.

The musical wonders are many, including tenor Fritz Wunderlich and
baritone Hermann Prey in Renaissance songs; organist Helmut Walcha in
excerpts from his magnificent mono Bach cycle; Fischer-Dieskau singing
Christmas Lieder by Reinecke, Loewe and Reger; the Trapp Family Singers
(without Julie Andrews), and choral music accompanied by the peal of
bells and 19th-century musical clocks. There are excerpts from Fritz
Lehmann’s crackling Christmas Oratorio of 1955 and Karl Richter’s
stereo Bach Magnificat of 1961.

If it all sounds very anachronistically retro, it is no less effective
for that. And hearing these early DG and Arkiv recordings, featuring
some of the labels’ greatest artists in repertoire that must have been
close to their hearts (and most of them in monaural recordings) is an
opportunity to hear what totally authentic sound could be like in the
days before it became an audiophile ideal.

– Laurence Vittes

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