Eight Christmas SACD and CDs of Interest

by | Nov 21, 2015 | Special Features

A Wondrous Mystery: Renaissance Choral Music for Christmas – Stile Antico (TrackList follows) – Harmonia mundi SACD multichannel (5.0) HMU 807575, 72:57 (10/9/15) ****:

This is a fine SACD from Stile Antico. It’s not the familiar favorites of the season, but glorious performances of works from church services from the Renaissance period.

Composers include Michael Praetorius, Jacobus Handi and Johannel Eccard. You will hear a few familiar melodies, but most of the music will likely be new to you. The performances are really sublime. These choral works were designed to be sung by congregations in the church gatherings of the time. There are German carols, and mass by the Flemish master Jacobus Clemens non Papa

A word about the performers. The Stile Antico is one of the premier groups to perform renaissance music. They are based in London, and have a shelf full of major music awards. They’ve done many recordings and are in high demand for live performances. The group is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month.

The 5.0 channel audio is a perfect match for the music. Recorded in a large venue, the voices float dreamily from the front speakers, while the rears envelop the room with a rich ambiance. This recording was mastered and recorded in DSD, and if you have the requisite equipment it’s a fine listen in DSD direct. But the SACD sounded just fine, and I was hard pressed to hear any obvious differences.

There are so many me-too Christmas releases at this time of year, so A Wondrous Mystery is a fine way to get yourself into the holiday spirit. I know the disc will get a workout in my house.


Ein Kind geborn in Bethlehem 3:26
Motet: Pastores quidnam vidistis 5:01
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen 2:57
Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis: Kyrie 5:51
Canite tuba 2:10
Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis: Gloria 8:11
Magnificat quinti toni 11:25
Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis: Credo 10:09
Mirabile mysterium 4:06
Über’s Gebirg Maria geht 2:56
Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis: Sanctus & Benedictus 7:34Vom Himmel hoch 2:01
Hodie Christus natus est 3:14
Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis: Agnus Dei 3:51

—Mel Martin

LongXmasDinnerHINDEMITH: The Long Christmas Dinner (opera) – libretto by Thornton Wilder – Soloists/American Sym. Orch. /Leon Botstein – Bridge 9449, 48:49 – (Distr. by Albany):

An interesting holiday short opera in its first live performance at NYC’s Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. It has four soprano and mezzo soloists, two tenors and two baritones. The setting is a 90-year span of Christmas dinners in the dining room of the Bayard house. Through the rise and decline of an American bourgeois family, it explores the experiene of time as a condition of hman possibility and limitation. Both “the bright and the dark” are exposed on this often-touching musical dramaturgy. It consists of a series of discrete musical sections broadly analogizing the action instead of a seamless flow of musical ideas.

Hindemith also uses transformed recurrences of various themes and motifs during scenes taking place in various generations. One arresting scene involves Sam, the proud soldier, who asks his family to “do what you do on Christmas Day.” Wilder had had a close and complex relationship with music, and like Our Town, part of The Long Christmas Dinner, concerns the Mill-Wheel of birth and death – which can be mechanical and frustrating or filled with new promise. The note booklet has the entire libretto in both English and German. It’s in a double-size jewel box which can hold three discs, but in this case there is only one plus the note booklet.

EssentialVoicesHoliday Harmonies – Songs of Christmas (TrackList follows) – Essential Voices USA/ Judith Clurman – Sono Luminus SL, 23:47:

This EP is the third disc Essential Voices has done for Sono Luminus. It features guest artists Jamie Barton, mezzo; Maureen McKay, sop.; Tedd Firth, piano; and Stacey Shames, harp.  It has both new and innovative arrangements of Christmas favorites and new pieces commissioned by Essential Voices USA for this release. Essential Voices is one of NYC’s preeminent choral ensembles, and is made up of both seasoned professionals and auditioned volunteers. Their other albums for Sono Luminus are Celebrating the American Spirit and Cherished Moments: Songs of the Jewish Spirit. 

TrackList:  Angels We Have Heard on High, O Holy Night, Silent Night, Love Came Down, The Virgin’s Slumber Song, Whispered and Revealed, Merry Christmas Wishing Well, We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

WintersDelightsWinter’s Delights – Early Christmas Music and Carols from the British Isles [TrackList follows] – Quadriga Consort – Deusche Harmonia mundi/ Sony Music 88875075722:

The Quadriga Consort consists of singer Elisabeth Kaplan and a sextet of early instruments – including viola da gamba and harpsichord. This CD is a musical homage to winter, celebrated with long-forgotten carols and old tunes. There are some well-known ones such as “The Three Kings” but most of the 17 here will be new to the ears and that makes this disc so much better to hear along with logs in the fireplace, candlelight and wine. It is sure to get much playing in this house.


The First Nowell (trad. carol, England)
Gloomy Winter (trad. strathspey, Scotland)
Leanabh an Aigh – The Blessed Child (carol to a traditional Scottish tune by Mary M. MacDonald (1789–1872), made world-famous by Cat Stevens as ‘Morning Has Broken’ in 1971 with lyrics by Eleanor Farjeon (1881–1965))
Tune No. 172 (tune by Irish Harper Turlough O’Carolan (1670–1738))
The Three Kings (trad. carol, England)
On This Day (trad. carol, England)
Noel Nouvelet – Sing We Now of Christmas (trad. carol, France/England)
Sweet Baby, Sleep! (lyrics: George Wither (1588–1667), music: Nikolaus Newerkla)
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! (trad. carol, England)
The Traveller Benighted in Snow (trad. air, Scotland)
Early in the Morning / The Ivy Leaf  / Christmas Comes But Once a Year (trad. hornpipe / trad. reel / trad. jig, Ireland)
Fare Thee Well, Cold Winter (trad. song, England)
Blessed Be That Maid Marie (trad. carol, England)
A Merry Christmas (trad. jig, Ireland)
Winter’s Delights (Lyrics: Thomas Campion (1567–1620), music: Nikolaus Newerkla)
Gloucestershire Wassail (trad. song, England)
The Stormy Scenes of Winter (trad. song, Nova Scotia)

CarolsSt.PaulsCarols with St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir – Andrew Carwood, dir. – Decca 478 9225:

Choir singing has gone on at St. Paul’s in London since the ninth century, and the tradition of singing services in the Cathedral is carried on today via this CD. The 19 tracks are mostly the familiar carols, though there are some lovely unfamiliar items among them, such as the anonymous “Gaudete” and Peter Warlock’s lovely “Benedicamus Domino.” There are also carols by Vaughan Williams, Britten and Holst. It was news to me that “Hark! The Herald-Angels Sing” was composed by Mendelssohn. There is a short paragraph on each of the 19 carols and a complete listing of all the choir members.

ViennaBoysChoirXmasMerry Christmas from Vienna [TrackList follows] – Vienna Boys Choir with Rolando Villazon (tr. 4), Aida Gariflullina (tr. 18) and dir. by Phil Blech Wien/ Schubert-Akademie/ WienerWunderAllerlei – DGG B0023692-02:

The latest from probably the most famous boy choir in the world. It consists of trebles and altos and is based in Vienna, although not all the boys in the choir are Austrian. The choir is the modern-day descendant of boys choirs of the Viennese Court, dating back to the last Middle Ages. It consists of about 100 choristers between ages ten and 14, divided into four touring choirs. Over the centuries, the choir has worked with many composers, including Isaac, Biber, Fux, Gluck, Mozart, Schubert and Bruckner.

The choir has come under pressure to modernize and has faced criticism of their musical standards, leading to a split with the Vienna State Opera. They have sought to update their image – no longer always wearing the little sailor suits used since the 1920s and even sometimes dancing when they sing. There were allegations in 2010 of sexual abuse by staff and choir members.


1. Adeste fideles John Francis Wade
2. Fröhliche Weihnacht überall
3. The First Nowell mit Schubert
4. O Holy Night (Rolando Villazón)
5. Il est né le divin enfant
6. Carol Of The Bells
7. Joy To The World
8. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
9. Leise rieselt der Schnee
10. Winter Wonderland
11. Let It Snow
12. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
13. Jingle Bells
14. Jingle Bell Rock
15. Feliz navidad
16. We Wish You A Merry Christmas
17. Happy Christmas (War Is Over)
18. Silent Night (Aida Garifullina)

—Above reviews by John Sunier

BasieXmas-CDThe Count Basie Orchestra – A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas! [TrackList follows] – Concord CRE-38450-02, 44:32 ****:

(The Count Basie Orchestra led by Scotty Barnhart – special guests –  Johnny Mathis track 3; Ledisi track 6; Carmen Bradford track 9; Ellis Marsalis & Plas Johnson track 11)

It might be hyperbole to say that The Count Basie Orchestra and Christmas go together like plum pudding and caramel sauce, but that is the sense imparted in the Christmas release from this aggregation, A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas! However, this is not “The” Count Basie Orchestra, but an iteration of the band led by Scotty Barnhart. That is not to say they don’t swing, because they do. This is in no small measure because many of the arrangements which were done by either Sammy Nestico or Gordon Goodwin, both of whom understand what makes this band tick.

The track list is replete with those well-known and hummable Christmas favourites all done in Basie-style starting with the trite “Jingle Bells”. Arranged by Nestico, it has a confidence that belies the tune’s simplicity, and is enhanced by a strong trumpet solo from Bruce Harris. In “The Holiday Season”  venerable singer Johnny Mathis does the vocal honours although his voice seems to have moved down an octave or two from his tenor range during his prime. On “Silent Night” arranged by Scotty Barnhart, alto saxophonist Marshall McDonald must have thought he was in the Duke Ellington Orchestra given the Johnny Hodges-style  flourishes he delivers on his instrument.

Not out of place in the proceedings, R&B singer Ledisi gives Mel Tormé’s “A Christmas Song” a lights-out reading, supported by a lush arrangement from Goodwin. Tenor saxophonist Doug Lawrence’s big tone adds to the interest. Another tune that prances along is “Sleigh Ride”, benefiting from another Goodwin arrangement. Leader Barnhart shows he hasn’t forgotten his trumpet chops delivering a stinging solo. Also pitching in were bass trombonist Wendell Kelly, and baritone saxophonist Jay Brandford. Although not with this organization, tenor saxophonist Frank Foster was a long time member of the Basie New Testament Band and contributes his arrangement of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” in which vocalist Carmen Bradford does a sparkling turn.

Scotty Barnhart’s arrangement of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” completes the session and features pianist Ellis Marsalis, father of the ubiquitous Marsalis clan, and tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson. The latter, during the 1960s, was a member of a group of first-call studio musicians in Los Angeles called The Wrecking Crew. This group was the unheralded musicians who participated in many of the seminal recordings of the period such as “The Lonely Bull” by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, “I Get Around” by The Beach Boys and “Strangers In The Night” by Frank Sinatra. Here Marsalis and Johnson strut their stuff and put paid on this swinging arrangement. This album is a delightful gift to put under the Christmas tree.

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 Little Christmas; Winter Wonderland; I’ll Be Home For Christmas

—Pierre Giroux

DennleinXmasCDBarbara Dennerlein – Christmas Soul [TrackList follows] – (with quintet) – MPS/Edel:

A most enjoyable jazz Christmas CD – though not all strictly jazz. There’s a variety of styles here, including soul, fusion, hard bop, Latin, everthing. Dennerlein consistently wins Down Beat’s instrumentalist of the year award, and really can swing that B-3 here in most of the tracks. She is aided by reed play and arranger Magnus Lindgren, and jazz vocalist from England Zara McFarlane, is heard on a couple tracks. She is heard three tracks.  The Bob Dorough favorite (originally on a Miles Davis LP) “Blue Christmas” is heard in a strictly instrumental version, and later McFarlane sings its true but rather depressing lyrics. Dennerlein is right, this is one Christmas tune that should be better known.  It’s interesting that the European release has one less track and a different order. One reviewer said of this CD, “…this can easily become as much a part of Christmas as Charlie Brown and Mel Torme.”

Tracklist: Christmas Time, Let It Snow, Blue Christmas (instru.), We Three Kings, B’s X-mas Blues, Little Drummer Boy, Sleight Ride, Christmas Song, O Tannenbaum, Silent Night, Chim Chim Cherie, Blue Christmas (vocal), White Christmas.

—John Henry


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