Eight Christmas CDs for the 2016 Holidays

by | Dec 8, 2016 | Special Features

Eight Christmas CDs of Note, Holidays 2016

“Song of the Nativity” – The Sixteen/ Harry Christophers – Coro COR16146, 73:58 (10/14/16) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

This wonderful Christmas offering comprises some of the best modern carols and choral works of the modern age, sung to absolute perfection by a noted and very reliable ensemble. The sound is first rate and the dynamic range of this group never fails to astound.

Fortunately, there are also seven traditional carols thrown into the mix, and they are taken, as directly as possible, from the classic Oxford Book of Carols from 1928. After all the Christmas albums that turn these gems inside out with never-ending permutations and cleverly assembled variances, hearing them in this form, sans ego and overly-stoked imagination, is a real and very genuine pleasure. This album will serve as a balm to over-jaded holiday sensibilities, and help to recapture the real meaning of the season.


Bullard, A: And all the stars looked down
Chilcott: Shepherd’s Carol
Davies, Walford: O Little Town of Bethlehem
Gardner, John: When Christ was born of Mary free
Ireland: The Holy Boy
Jackson, Gabriel: The Christ-child
Lauridsen: O magnum mysterium
MacMillan: The Strathclyde Motets: O Radiant Dawn
McDowall: Now may we singen, a carol for Christmas
Ord: Adam lay ybounden
Roth, A: Song of the Shepherds
Rutter: There is a flower
Skempton: Adam lay y-bounden
Todd: My Lord Has Come
Trad.: The Saviour’s Work; A Gallery Carol; Children’s Song of the Nativity; Somerset Wassail; This endris night Christmas Eve; Dutch Carol
Warlock: Bethlehem Down

—Steven Ritter

butt-xmas-oratorioBACH: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 – Mary Bevan, sop./ Clare Wilkinson, alto/ Nicholas Mulroy, ten./ Matthew Brook, bass/ Joanne Lunn, sop./ Ciara Hendrick, mezzo/ Thomas Hobbs, ten./ Konstantin Wolff, bass/ Dunedin Consort/ John Butt – Linn multichannel SACD CKD 499 (2 discs), 141 min. [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

I am still not convinced by the arguments espousing one singer per part; it seems to me that many musicologists are confusing the forces Bach had to deal with as opposed to his ideals. As I have stated before, I cannot recall any composer wishing for fewer performing members. They all seem to complain about never having enough. And when you hear the brilliant opening of the first cantata of the Christmas Oratorio, with trumpets blazing, the very orchestration demands an ensemble greater than a four-part chorus.

Be that as it may, John Butt has rendered a sparkling and energetic performance of this work, originally a series of Christmas season cantatas for the first three festal days, the feast of the Circumcision, Sunday after New Year, and Epiphany, in gloriously flashy surround sound. In accordance with what he tells us in the booklet notes, two “casts” of singers are used to cover three cantatas apiece, with a few “ripienists” added for Cantatas 1, 3, and 6 (where trumpets are used) in order to beef up the sound, again according to what he believes Bach did. This is fine, though I am not sure what Bach did has any musical meaning for us today, as we are not hearing this music in the same way, and certainly not in the same place and series of days.

Yet the singers are all outstanding, presenting the music with a ravishing sense of joy and spontaneity that some other recordings can only envy. The Dunedin Consort has long proven itself, and pulls out all of the stops. Because of the trimmed-down forces this could not be my only recording, but for sheer vitality and gorgeous sonic allure it’s very difficult to beat.

—Steven Ritter

kingssingersxmascdChristmas Songbook – The King’s Singers – Signum Classics [8/12/16] ****:

16 tracks of Christmas favorites are here. World-renowned a cappella group The Kings Singers follow their recent Great American Songbook album with the Christmas equivalent, on a disc that pays homage to the groups’ roots whilst acknowledging their current passion for swing. Traditional favourites such as ‘The Holly and the Ivy, In the Bleak Midwinter,” and the beautiful Austrian carol “Still, Still, Still,” jockey for position amongst modern-day classics like “Winter Wonderland, Frosty the Snowman” and “Sleigh Ride.” All are presented in new arrangements by some of the group’s favourite arrangers: Berty Rice, Keith Roberts and Alexander Lestrange.

My First Christmas Album – Var. Performers [TrackList follows] – Naxos 8.578340, 75:46 (11/11/16):

The idea of this CD is to be a springboard for a lifelong journey thru the world of classical music. Every selection of the many here is carefully tailored to the younger listeners and you will find familiar tracks as well as unexpected gems.  There is booklet with the CD full of information on each piece of music. The selection is both unique and imaginative, and should open a door to a wonderful world that children and their parents can discover together.

Includes excerpts from:
– Once in royal David’s city
– Sleighride to Thredbo
– We three kings of Orient are
– Sans Day Carol
– Winter Wonderland
– The holly and the ivy
– For unto us a Child is born
– Esta bella noche
– Christmas Concerto
– King Jesus hath a garden
– This Little Babe
– In the bleak midwinter
– Good King Wenceslas
– Jingle Bells
– Carol of the Bells
– Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy
– Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
– Gaudete Christus est natus
– Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer
– Away in a manger
– Hurrying to Bethlehem
– Kun Joulu on
– Silent Night
– Noël: Vous qui désirez sans fin
– A maiden most gentle
– Wassail Song
– Russian Dance (Trepak)
– Unto us is born a Son
– Ding dong merrily on high
– Rocking

dashingcdDashing – Sounds of the Season – The Stanbery Singers, the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Salt Lake City Jazz Orchestra – Navona CD NV6055 TT:49:00  (9/9/16) **:

This CD which contains new arrangements of old favorites for the holiday season is a mixed bag, but ultimately, I think, fails as a listenable disc.

The program starts with narration of A visit from Old St. Nicholas. Generally, when I want to hear Christmas music, it doesn’t include a desire to hear someone reading, no matter how pleasant the background music is. Then the disc gives us some nice classical styled music of the season, but by the time we get to God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen we break into a jazz number. Then it’s back to the more traditional.

I think the mood simply varies too much to make this the kind of CD I would play during the holidays. The mood changes are just too jarring. As a recording, Navona has done a very nice job. The production is well put together, and the musical performances are fine. Stereo separation is very nice, and the tracks all present a convincing image spread between my two front speakers.

I just think in concept this disc represents a thematic misfire. I can easily enjoy a Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas album, or something more deeply classical, like Vaughan-Williams lovely Hodie. But ‘humbug’ on this disc. It left me wanting a more consistent theme.

—Mel Martin

carolsymnaxframedHELY-HUTCHINSON: A Carol Symphony; other music by KELLY, WARLOCK, LANE AND STANDFORD – Naxos 8.5557099, 68:23 (11/1/02) ****:

Ah, Christmas and holiday music. In truth, usually by about December first I have already had my fill. The radio and the malls are all blasting the stuff. The arrangements are often banal, and I’ve just heard these tunes two many times.

Having said that, there is one Christmas disc I have that I truly enjoy and that’s Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony. It was first performed in 1929 in London with the composer conducting. It is based on four Christmas carols, given additional orchestration and counterpoint arrangements. The four movements are written to be played uninterrupted consecutively.

The first movement (Allegro energico) is based on O Come All Ye Faithful. It is in the style of a Bach chorale prelude. The second movement is a scherzo (Allegro molto moderato) on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, similar to the Russian Balakirev compositions. The third movement (Andante quasi lento e cantabile) is a slow movement whose outer sections are based on the Coventry Carol, with a central interlude on The First Nowell. The finale (Allegro energico come prima) recapitulates material from the first movement, and also uses Here We Come A-Wassailing before concluding with a re-statement of O Come All Ye Faithful similar to a style of Charles Villiers Stanford in a fugal structure.

The album also contains some tasteful arrangements by Bryan Kelly with his Improvisations on Christmas Carols; Peter Warlock’s Carol for Strings, Phillip Lane’s Wassail Dances and A Christmas Carol Symphony by Patric Standford.

Sound-wise, it’s yet another fine recording from the City of Prague Philharmonic with Gavin Sutherland conducting. The strings are lovely, and there is good deep bass when the music requires it. The music was recorded in a large hall, and it’s a fine, very natural sounding recording. The performance dates from 2002.

I usually get my ‘Christmas fix’ from Vaughan Williams Hodie, and this album. The arrangements are very nice, the playing is first rate, and the recording satisfies without ever dipping into clichés. Highly recommended for Christmas Music scrooges!

—Mel Martin

nolaplayers2Nola Players – “Christmastime in New Orleans” [TrackList follows] – AimHiher Recordings [Distr. by Verve] B0025504-02, 58:17 [9/9/16] ****1/2:

(Mike Esneault – piano, arranger; Jim Atwood – percussion; Roland Guerin – bass; Terrance Taplin – lead trombone; Jason Marsalis – vibes, percussion; Geoff Clapp – drums; Rex Gregory – lead alto saxophone, clarinet, flute; Bobby Campo – lead trumpet; Ashlin Parker, Stephen Orejudos – trumpet; BJ McGibney – bass trombone; Ray Moore – second alto saxophone, clarinet, flute; Matt Wright – trombone; Tony Dagradi – lead tenor saxophone, clarinet; John Reeks – second tenor saxophone, clarinet; Jason Mingledorff – baritone saxophone; Charlie Dennard – organ, keyboards; Mike Vila – guitar; Patti Adams – flute)

Sometimes Christmas music can be as exciting as…well…as finding coal in your Christmas Day stocking. But once in a while, somebody puts together a treasury of holiday tunes which is energizing, fun—and as enjoyable as a kiss under the mistletoe from someone special. Case in point: the hour-long Christmastime in New Orleans by the NOLA Players, a who’s-who of New Orleans musicians who put a jazz spin on familiar fare (such as “Joy to the World” and “Jingle Bells”) as well as newer music (“Christmas in New Orleans”). There are 18 artists listed in the credits, including several which New Orleans jazz fans should recognize, like bassist Roland Guerin, percussionist Jason Marsalis (who also adds vibes to this festive CD), organist Charlie Dennard and many more.

This tinseled treat commences with a friendly rendition of the perennial “Silver Bells,” which opens with arranger Mike Esneault’s piano, Marsalis’ swinging vibes, and then the horns, bass and drums enter. The mood is amiable, the kind of light groove perfect for listening to while sipping spiked eggnog. A great way to start a party. Things go up a notch on an up-ticking “Deck the Halls,” with clarinet, trumpet and other horns splitting the solo spotlight. When soulful sax strides in, you know you’ve found the sweet spot for a jolly good time. And if you want a fresh winter favorite then you need to hear the stylish “Christmas in New Orleans,” which was recorded in the ‘50s by Louis Armstrong with the Benny Carter Orchestra. If you’ve never heard this, you should. It’s an appealing track which nimbly mingles Big Easy jazz with a holiday spirit. It’s like gumbo mashed up with a Christmas ham; spicy and slinky—and different—but so delicious.

A funky frolic infuses “I Saw Three Ships.” The arrangement flawlessly fits this ensemble, with a generous rhythmic romp; a combo percussion/drum solo which evokes a slight Caribbean connotation; then there’s a sudden slowdown when piano and saxophone take the lead; but the arrangement gradually builds up steam again, and the dance demeanor is at the forefront once more. If you require to shake a few extra pounds off after a hearty holiday meal, this is the tune that will get you up and cavorting. Another hefty dose of New Orleans-inclined jazz is felt throughout “Jingle Bells.” Everyone is acquainted with this long-time December delight, but to truly appreciate this is to hear how trumpets, saxes, trombones and a rolling and rocking rhythm section give this a Southern stance and jazz liveliness.

During the program, the NOLA Players know when to bring the proceedings to a low boil without losing this album’s playful personality. The traditional English ballad, “Holly and Ivy” sustains a gentler gait highlighted by Esneault’s piano, some bell-like percussion, a honeyed and lofty flute, and low notes from bass trombone and acoustic bass. A very brief adaptation of the much-loved 19th-century composition, “Silent Night,” also has a slow percolation, and is over before you have time to ponder the tune’s beauty.

Two standouts include a gospel-tinged “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” fronted by Dennard’s funky Hammond B-3 organ, the massed horns, a righteously swinging rhythm section, and lots of solos. You’ve probably heard this piece more times than you can remember, but it hasn’t lost its charms, and is an unqualified success displaying the NOLA Players’ zest and vigor. You can readily imagine this wafting from a New Orleans jazz joint on Christmas Eve. George Frederic Handel would no doubt have no inkling his “Joy to the World” could have become such an upbeat jazz jumper, but it certainly does in the hands of the NOLA Players. There’s a vivid ‘joie de vivre’ to this vivacious performance. The CD closes with a dynamic arrangement of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” which skillfully ebbs and flows from quiet moments to buoyant parts, with plentiful and pleasant contributions from flutists Rex Gregory and Patti Adams. The recording was steered by award-winning producer Christopher Alder and was taped onstage in a studio-like setting at the historic New Orleans Saenger Theatre. The musicians were arranged in a relaxed circle and the players performed as a unit rather than being isolated as they might in a typical studio. The result is an easy-going, collective-like enthusiasm which is accentuated by the venue’s warm and open acoustics and provides each of the 14 cuts an organic and natural appeal.

TrackList: Silver Bells, Deck the Halls, Christmas in New Orleans, O Christmas Tree, I Heard the Bells, Joy to the World, I Saw Three Ships, Holly and Ivy, Jingle Bells, Away in a Manger, Silent Night, Go Tell It On the Mountain, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.

—Doug Simpson

countbasiexmasThe Count Basie Orchestra – A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas! – Concord Jazz CJA-38450-02, 42:39 [11/6/15] ****:

(The Count Basie Orchestra with special guests Ellis Marsalis, Johnny Mathis, Ledisi, Carmen Bradford, & Plas Johnson)

If anyone is looking for a way to spice up their Christmas music collection, look no further than Count Basie. The King Of Swing has delighted fans world wide with his uptempo big band jazz. So…why not Christmas? Concord Jazz has a nice collection of holiday music, A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas that may answer that question. Of course, the Count is not here, but his spirit lives on in the namesake orchestra. Eleven holiday selections with top-notch arrangements has arrived from Concord Jazz.

The album gets started with the staple, “Jingle Bells”. From barking dogs to elevator-sounding tracked vocals, everyone has taken their shot at this. The Basie Orchestra flat-out swings with flourishes and big band texture in this muscular cover. On a cooler, medium groove “Let It Snow” is jazz bliss with guest star Ellis Marsalis. All of the chord changes and a nimble trumpet solo elevate this number. Things remain interesting when they take very predictable Christmas fare and retool it. “Good Swing Wencelas” has large instrumental bravado and solos on piano and trumpet. The same is true for “Silent Night” which has a less solemn, but soulful resonance. Even “Little Drummer Boy” swings with a variety of soloing and a finger-snapping drum accompaniment.

There are vocal performances from Johnny Mathis (“It’s The Holiday Season”), Ledisi (“The Christmas Song”) and Carmen Bradford (“Have Yourself A Merry Christmas”). But it’s the instrumentals that steal the show. The expansive and diverse arrangement of “Sleigh Ride” (with a baritone sax, bass trombone and muted trumpet) is dynamic. The amiable swing on “Winter Wonderland” is downright infectious. As a bonus, Marsalis is joined by Wrecking Crew legend Plas Johnson (“Pink Panther Theme”, “Rockin’ Robin”) in a gentler, melodic finale on “(I’ll Be Home For Christmas”). There are classic big band flashes connecting with the overall concept. Marsalis’ final piano riff is vintage Basie.

TrackList: Jingle Bells; Let It Snow; “It’s The holiday Season; Silent Night; Good “Swing” Wenceslas; The Christmas Song; Little drummer boy; Sleigh Ride; Have Yourself A Merry Christmas; Winter Wonderland; I’ll Be Home For Christmas

—Robbie Gerson

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