Our Annual Survey of New
Christmas & Holiday CDs
[Including SACDs]

Christmastime is Here – Erich Kunzel/Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, with Ann Hampton Callaway, Tony DeSare, King Singers, John Pizzarelli, Tierney Sutton, Indiana University Singing Hoosiers, School for the Creative and Performing Art Children’s Choir – Telarc 80538, 58:08 ****:

If you really need a little Christmas, get into the holiday spirit by listening to this collection of holiday standards recorded under the direction of the “Prince of Pops,” Erich Kunzel.  In his forty years with the Cincinnati orchestra, Kunzel has done an amazing eighty-two recordings on the Telarc label. Just that fact alone should make you wonder how he finds time for anything else; but believe me, he does. Maestro Kunzel has also appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in more than 100 performances at the Ravinia Festival and is a regular guest conductor with orchestras around the globe. Since 1991, Kunzel has also been the conductor of the “National Memorial Day Concert” and “A Capitol Fourth,” the nationally televised PBS specials that are broadcast live from the U.S. Capitol West Lawn each year.  He received his education at Harvard, Dartmouth and Brown universities and made his professional conducting debut in 1957 with the Santa Fe Opera Company. Thanks in part to the late Arthur Fiedler, who invited him to conduct The Boston Pops in 1970, Erich Kunzel remains committed to pops and does it in an enormously appealing way, to the delight of his large audiences.
 
This CD is a compilation of recordings done from 1999-2006. This particular assortment of performers are a testament to the fact that Erich Kunzel is continually able to entice his friends to join him in his popular music endeavors. Ann Hampton Callaway’s performance of John Jacob Niles’ perennial favorite, “I Wonder As I Wander” has just the warmth and vocal presence needed without resorting to melodrama. What would Christmas be without the sound of children singing?  The School for Creative and Performing Arts will loan you some for the duration of this recording; and they are obviously having a very good time here. Perhaps the best thing on this eminently enjoyable recording is jazz singer Tierney Sutton singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” She sounds effortless in her performance of this well-known ballad.  The sound of the orchestra is rich and welcoming; and listening to this CD is a great way to settle down for a respite after your frantic Christmas shopping.  So go ahead, enjoy – ‘tis the season for a little rest and relaxation.
 
Tracklist:  Precious Moments, I Wonder As I Wander, Christmastime Is Here, It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, Silent Night, Little Drummer Boy, We Need A Little Christmas, The Christmas Song, Caroling Fun, Jingle Bell Rock, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas, Silver Bells
 
-Ann Stahmer 


Oleta Adams – Christmas Time With Oleta – Oleta Adams, vocals and instrumentals – Koch Records 4178, 43:18 ****:

 
Multitalented Oleta Adams welcomes the holidays with her first solo album in five years.
 
Christmas Time With Oleta cooks up an enjoyable recipe for the holidays with a healthy helping of R&B, a spoonful of jazz, and a pinch of gospel.  Oleta Adams, the daughter of a preacher, goes back to her roots and offers the listener a group of well-known and loved selections. This is her first solo recording project in five years, and a change of pace for her because she did not write the tunes.  She arranged the music and played the majority of the instruments, with a little help from husband John Cushon on percussion, Lonnie McFadden and Ronald McFadden on horn parts for two of the songs, and Greg Clark and Tammy Ward Clayton on backup vocals.  

Ms. Adams has a rich contralto voice with great depth and power. On this recording, she is very careful to use that power only when appropriate.  From listening to her performance on this CD, I got the distinct impression that she has more vocal strength than she chose to demonstrate here; and I admire her ability and intelligence in the way she put energy into her singing without going over the line and shouting.  I also applaud her for not letting her backup singers scream their parts. The CD was recorded at her home studio in Kansas City; and she is listed as the producer.  The balance between the voices and the instruments on this recording is generally well done, especially considering it was not produced in a commercial recording studio.  I wish the piano had sounded warmer on this CD, though.
 
The first track on the CD disappointed me a bit.  I would have loved to hear Ms. Adams sing “Of The Father’s Love Begotten” instead of just playing the piano and using this music as an introduction to “Hark The Herald Angels Sing.”  The musical transition between the two songs seemed rather abrupt.  I liked her version of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” and think that she communicated her obvious love for the holidays well through this song.  My favorite track on this CD is “There’s Still My Joy.”  I really felt the quiet emotional appeal in Ms. Adams’ performance of this song.  Her version of “Let It Snow” made me imagine seeing her on a holiday television special, all dressed up for the weather.  Throughout this recording, Ms. Adams sounded like she was having a lot of fun with this music.  For me, that is an essential element of a good performance. So, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and join Oleta Adams for this elegant collection of holiday favorites.
 
Tracklist: Of The Father’s Love Begotten, Alleluia Alleluia (Peace On Earth), Christmas Time Is Here, I Wonder As I Wander, Breath Of Heaven, Winter Wonderland, There’s Still My Joy, Let It Snow, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Silent Night
 
– Ann Stahmer

Simply Christmas: Home for the Holidays – The Canadian Brass/Richard Stolzman, clarinet/Ayoko Shinosaki, harp/Michala Petri, recorder/ London Festival Orchestra/ Martin Neary, conductor/ National Philharmonic Orchestra/ Ross Pople, conductor/Munich Radio Orchestra/ John Georgiadis, conductor – Sony Classical 82876-88581-2, 61:04 ****:
 
Here is yet another reason to forget the piles of work waiting for you after New Year’s and settle down for an afternoon or evening of musical entertainment laced with holiday favorites.  There were some really nice surprises on the collection of familiar Christmas selections.  I loved the jazzy treatment of “Ding Dong!”  
The London Festival Orchestra played with a much-appreciated delicacy on “Coventry Carol” that was very appealing and produced a period sound.  Danish recorder player Michala Petri is obviously an accomplished musician who adds an authentic flavor to the selections on which she so ably performs.  And it wouldn’t seem like Christmas without at least one recording featuring The Canadian Brass, a worldwide favorite who always make the holiday season warmer.
 
I guess my only complaint about this recording is that I wish the sound were a little more immediate and cleaner.  That may be caused by the fact that this is a compilation disc of previously released material, some of it dating from as early as 1983. Recording techniques have gotten so much better in the last few years; and today’s results are (thankfully) leaps and bounds from the sound we all grew up with.  Now that I’ve gotten that over with, I would gladly recommend this disc as a wonderful background for a holiday gathering of friends. It is lively enough to draw their attention but not too much so that it will stop conversations in their tracks. And, the price is certainly right – $9.98 for the suggested retail.  Stocking stuffers, anyone?
 
Tracklist: Ding Dong!, O Christmas Tree, Sheep May Safely Graze, The Coventry Carol, Medley (The First Nowell, O Come All Ye Faithful!), Shepherd’s Music for Christmas (Andante ma non troppo, Largo, Allegro assai), I Wonder As I Wander, Pastorale  from Concerto Grosso Op. 5 No. 6, Dejlig er den himmel bla (Beautiful is the Sky)/Et barn er Fodt i Bethlehem (A Child Is Born in Bethlehem), Dejlig er den himmel bla, Et barn er Fodt i Bethlehem, He Shall Feed His Flock from “Messiah,” The Little Drummer Boy, Adagio from Symphony No. 26 in D minor, Noel Ten, Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming, Pastoral Symphony from “Messiah,” Silent Night, O Holy Night
 
– Ann Stahmer

A New Joy: Orthodox Christmas – Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/ Paul Hillier, Conductor – Harmonia mundi Multichannel SACD HMU 807410, 55:25 *****:

The folks at Harmonia mundi must be waxing ecstatic these days over the pairing of the Estonian Chamber Choir with Paul Hillier. Hillier, long time advocate of early music, scholar deluxe in the music of Arvo Part, and teacher and advocate of superb choral offerings, has hit a gold mine with his current assignment in Estonia. This group (this is the sixth release) has been winning accolades everywhere they perform, and has choral aficionados salivating each time they offer a new recording.

And with good reason. The choir has proven its mettle time and time again in a variety of styles, even that variety that exists within its own cultural clime; they are as adept at western music as they are in eastern, and have already turned in perhaps the finest Vigil service of Rachmaninoff on records, along with an equally successful disc of Russian liturgical chant. So it should come as no surprise that they prove as effective and affected when looking inward to their roots again in this sparkling album of Orthodox Christmas music.

And Hillier is intent on revealing some new goodies to us. Besides the almost mandatory Kedrov ‘Our Father’, he offers a ‘Rejoice, O Virgin’ by Part that shows a far more joyous side to this often somber composer, and also take the time to explore the forgotten works of Alexander Kastalsky (1856-1926), whose fortunes declined precipitously during the Soviet era, yet was accomplishing remarkable work in infusing new life into folk-based techniques in liturgical music as demonstrated by his phenomenal Moscow Synodal Choir. A generation of composers would follow his lead as long as they could. We are treated to six of his pieces, some recorded here for the first time.

There are Ukrainian carols, a variety of texts from many parts of the Nativity service, and even the complete first songs to the Nativity Canon (a poetic form of nine odes that elaborate on the theology of the feast). Texts and translations, along with excellent notes by Vladimir Morosan round out a first-class production. The wonderful surround sound makes this release even more special, supplying a five channel choral ambiance that radiates the glories of the music. If you are looking for a different sort of Christmas album this year, you have found it. And if not, then it’s time to reconsider.

— Steven Ritter   

Medieval Christmas – The Orlando Consort – Harmonia Mundi HMU 907418, 68:09 ****:

Amidst the plethora of “medieval” Christmas albums on the market (some of dubious quality) comes this superb new effort by the Orlando Consort. They have not simply made random selections and dumped them together in a pot, but have categorized the hymns and even present them in a rough chronological order paralleling the cultural developments of the feast itself.

Hence we have five main topical sections: ‘Prophecy’, using early organum and Aquitainian polyphony; ‘New Years’, featuring a more refined ballade style and a rondeau by Dufay; ‘The Carol’, with three English uses of the form; ‘Narrative Motets’, stories told in music by Clemens Non Papa and others; and “Noel”, the quintessential Christmas form based on the word itself, with the exception of the Nato canunt omnia, an extremely complex and dense piece that tells the Christmas story in length, written by French composer Antoine Brumel.

Aside from spanning around 600 medieval years, the music also covers a few other feasts besides Christmas, yet closely related. So we get a few snippets from the feasts of St. Stephen and St. Thomas Becket; New Year’s Day (the Circumcision); and the Holy Innocents. The music is also arranged in roughly chronological order, so a natural complexity increases as we move into the later centuries.

The sound is excellent, with the consort resonant and warm. There are a lot of CDs released at this time of the year, many collections of “junk” designed to entice the unwitting listener. I buy quite a few every year as an inveterate collector of Christmas music. Don’t be seduced by the cheap and flashy—go for quality, and try to expand your horizons. There is much more to the Nativity season than ‘Jingle Bells’, and the Orlando Consort has provided a wonderful introduction to some seriously beautiful music that will enhance your seasonal pleasure.

— Steven Ritter 

Bruno Hubert Trio & The B3 Kings – A Cellar Live Christmas – Cellar Live CL082905 ****:

(Cory Weeds, alto sax; Bill Coon guitar; Chris Gestrin, B3 organ; Denxal Sinclaire, drums & vocals; Bruno Hubert, piano; Andrew Lachance, bass; Brad Turner, drums)

Coming from the source of many interesting albums recently – Vancouver, B.C. – this is a mix of a trio and a quartet,  one with piano and the other with B-3 organ. The plan was to make a Christmas album hip enough to sound like a real jazz album but just happened to have a Christmas theme.  They succeeded in this endeavor.  There are only two vocals by Denzal Sinclaire, and the second one – We Three Kings – is just superb.  It’s not just jazzing up a familiar carol but creating a whole new interpretation that is just as serious as the original.

I can recall when there were only a couple of jazz Christmas albums – back in LP days.  But now there is a deluge. Yet this one stands out as a most worthwhile holiday CD.

Tracklist: Jingle Bells, Little Drummer Boy, O Little Town of Bethlehem, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Away in a Manger, I Saw Three Ships, We Three Kings, O Come O Come Emmanuel, Dance of the Suger Plums, I Saw Momma Kissing Santa Claus.

 – John Henry

Boston Brass and the Brass All-Stars Big Band Present The Stan Kenton Christmas Carols – Summit Records DVD 464 ****:

Stan Kenton’s Christmas album of 1961 was a long time coming, because the bandleader resisted his label (Capitol’s) idea of doing one in the first place. The A & R people commission som great arrangements, and when Stan finally saw them he was  persuaded to go ahead. The entire sax section was replaced by French horns and the arrangements uphold the Kenton tradition of exciting brass writing without getting too wild.  The sound is not really of a typical big band but a bit closer to a very hip concert band. Ralph Carmichael did the original arrangements.

For this brand new recording the original Kenton arrangements were fleshed out with a few charts from JD Shaw and tuba specialist Sam Pilafian. The brass quintet Boston Brass are at the center of the charts, and other players involved in the session include many current and former members of either The Canadian Brass or Empire Brass.  The sessions went so well that the brassy players decided to take their Christmas collection on tour each holiday season as Stan Kenton’s Christmas Carols.

Tracklist: Good King Wenceslaus, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, We Three Kings, Once in Royal David’s City, The Holly and the Ivy, Greensleeves, O Tannenbaum, Angels We Have Heard on High, O Holy Night, The 12 Days of Christmas, Adeste Fideles, Christmas Medley, Motown Jingle Bells.

– John Henry

Nadales I Cançons (Catalan Christmas Carols and Songs) – Cor Lieder Camera/Josep Vila i Casañas, director – La Ma de Guido LMG 2071 ****:

A lovely collection of 17 Catalan folk songs harmonized for choir, plus two sardanas dances. The CD is actually the sequel to an earlier one of 1998 which survey another batch of these songs – which are considered traditional Catalan folksongs although they were composed some time ago by Enric Morera and Manuel S. Puigferrer. There has been a strong tradition of choral societies in Catalonia. The Spanish Civil War/Revolution affected it seriously, but Catalan folk culture and music is strong again and his heavenly-sounding chorus makes a good case for these intense and harmonically attractive songs. The words of each one are printed in the booklet, but unfortunately not in English.

– John Sunier

Christmas in Santa Fe – The Santa Fe Desert Chorale/ Linda Mack, cond./Rosalind Simpson, harp – Clarion CLR 926 (Dist. ClassiQuest), 59:29 **** [ArkivMusic.com]:

Christmas in Santa Fe is colored by the Mexican influence. Little lanterns adorn some of the adobe buildings and the candlelight processions known as posadas wend thru the town. The program of 20 separate selections was recorded live during two nights’ performances at a Winter Festival last year in the historic Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis. The intent was to capture some of the inspiration and job of this time of the year.

Tracklist: Seven Joys of Christmas, Christmas Lullaby, Lullay, This Little Babe, What Sweeter Music, Tomorrow Shale Be My Dancing Day, King King Wenceslaus, Joy to the World, Little tree, Alegria, Hiney Mah Tov, Duermere Niño Lindo, O Holy Night, Alleluia, Dies Santificatus.

– John Sunier


VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Fantasia on Christmas Carols; The First Nowell; On Christmas Night – Joseph Cullen, organ/ Sarah Fox, soprano/Roderick Williams, baritone/ Joyful Company of Singers/ City of London Sinfonia/ Richard Hickox  – Chandos CHAN 10385, 69:36 ****:

This is a recording premiere of the masque On Christmas Night, which was adapted from Dickens’ Christmas Carol, as well as the premiere recording of the string and pipe organ version of the Fantasia on Christmas Carols. VW had a passion for the freshness, beauty and nobility of Christmas carols and wrote many works and arrangements inspired by them.  On Christmas Night was first presented by a London ballet company in 1926. It has two singing parts with both vocalists being heard offstage.

The First Nowell is a nativity play which was one of the last works the composer wrote before his death in 1958. The original has eight speaking parts besides the three shepherds – reduced here to a soprano and baritone plus chorus. The atmospheric and impressionistic quality of Vaughan Williams’ music seems to fit perfectly into the Christmas stories, and his modern but still diatonic harmonies add interest to some these overly-familiar tunes.  Sonics are up to Chando’s usual high standards.

– John Sunier

BACH: Christmas Oratorio – Dawson, Landauer, Daniels, Mertens/Chorus of Radio Svizzera/I Barocchisti/ Diego Fasolis – Arts Multichannel SACD (2 discs: 70:31, 64:55) ****:

As we know, Bach was kept very busy composing a new cantata for almost every Sunday during his tenure in Leipzig.  His Christmas Oratorio is actually a cycle of six complete cantatas – for the first three days of Christmas, New Year, the Sunday after New Year, and Epiphany.  As was his practice (and that of most other composers during the period), Bach reused elements from his earlier music in the cantatas. He even used some festive secular pieces he had composed earlier for the royalty.
 
Unlike the other cantatas, the words for this series come entirely from the Gospels and are arranged to tell the story of the birth of Jesus in a linear fashion over the six parts. The tenor serves as the Evangelist, delivering the majority of the words, and Charles Daniels has a fine strong tenor voice. The note booklet does include English translations of the entire libretto. The chorus is precise, with good enunciation.  The original instrument chamber orchestra is highly skilled, especially in the spectacular high trumpet parts. The original recording was made on an analog multitrack deck and then top quality A-to-D conversion was carried out, with editing done in the digital domain. Bravo to Arts for using a sensible jewel box with a single longer spindle that holds two discs, rather than having to struggle with flipping a holder over – not knowing which side is hinged – to get at the second disc.

There are two other competing SACD versions of the Christmas Oratorio available – one on Channel Classics with the Netherlands Bach Society and another on the Documents label from Membran. I didn’t have either available for comparison.

 – John Sunier


GOTTFRIED HEINRICH STOELZEL: Christmas Oratorio; Te Deum; Cantata: Gehet zu seinen Toren ein – Schulze, Partowi, Post, Mertens/Handel’s Company/ Chamber Choir of MarienKantorei Lemgo/ Rainer Johannes Homburg – D&G Multichannel 2+2+2/5.1 SACD, 60:44 ****:

Another Baroque composer with a Christmas Oratorio consisting this time of three separate cantatas.  Stoelzel was Kapellmeister at the court of Gotha for almost 30 years; he lived until 1749. It is thought that he wrote around 14 Passions and Christmas oratorios, so this is the only one that survived. The formal structure of the cantatas is uniform and the instrumental parts include three trumpets, two each horns and oboes and a flute, in addition to strings, organ and theorbo.

The opening Te Deum is 20 minutes long and a starts things off with an impressive flourish. Stoelzel experiments with sonorities here, and the general effect is regal and important-sounding, though it is not known exactly what occasion the work was designed for. The jewel box says an English text is enclosed; there are notes in English but no English libretto.  One of the major attractions of this disc for audiophiles will be the clarity of the reverberation in the church where the recording was made.  There is a very palpable feeling of the space – more so than on most such multichannel recordings. It is probably even more pronounced on the 2+2+2 option available on the disc, but I didn’t set up for that option.  (I will be reviewing many 2+2+2 releases as a Special Feature soon.)

 – John Sunier


The Caliban Quartet of Bassoonists  – Caliban Does Christmas – Atma ACD2 2334 (Distr. by Albany), 57:54 *****:

(Bassoon Quartet with Mary Lou Fallis, Valdy, Heather Bambrick, Guido Basso, Alain Trudel & Friends)

The Calibans are Toronto-based bassoonists who hooked up in 1993 and have been winning praise worldwide for their very eclectic and fun programming. This is their third CD and would appeal to anyone who enjoys the shenanigans of their Canadian compatriots The Canadian Brass. In fact this was by far the most enjoyable Christmas disc I’ve auditioned this season!

The arrangements for the bassoonists of such tunes as Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride and I Saw Three Ships are clever and colorful.  Instruments such as vibes, guitar, glockenspiel and dulcimer add spice to many of the selections. The two classical tracks are a delight, but for me the highlights of the disc were four very humorous tracks.  First is Tom Lehrer’s pessimistic take  on Christmas, A Christmas Carol; then a music & sound effects portrayal of the 12 Days of Christmas without the lyrics, followed by a Giselle McKenzie hit, Too Fat for the Chimney, and ending with a new satirical Christmas song – The Same Christmas Cake.

– John Sunier


Christmas Break – Relaxing Jazz for the Holidays – Telarc Jazz  CD-83657, 50:16 ****:

An enjoyable compendium of a dozen tracks from some of the label’s top jazz artists, all in topflight sonics and nothing corny or too noisy – not a bad deal.  My only slight reservations were two of the three vocal tracks.  Mel Torme’s version of the Charlie Brown song can’t be faulted, but the other two made me wish this had been an all-instrumental compendium. Best to just list them all to close:

White Christmas – Oscar Peterson, piano
Christmastime is Here – Mel Torme
O Tannenbaum – Jim Hall, guitar
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Jeanie Bryson, vocal/Kenny Barron, piano
Santa Claus is Coming to Town – Dave Brubeck & Gerry Mulligan
Donkey Carol – George Shearing Quintet
The Christmas Song – Kevin Mahogany, vocal/Russell Malone, guitar/ Ray Brown Trio
Christmas Waltz – Oscar Peterson, piano
Away in a Manger – George Shearing, piano
Silent Night – Dave Brubeck, piano
Ave Maria – Al Di Meola, guitar & percussion
“Farewell” Jingle Bells – Dave Brubeck, piano

 – John Henry

 
 
The Klezmounauts – “Oy to the World!” A Klezmer Christmas – Satire Records 0175 ****:

Oy Vay! Who woulda thought of such an incongruous combination?  Well, Paul Libman, the owner of a Chicago advertising music production company, got the idea when he become increasingly annoyed by the growing number of insincere Christmas albums by pop superstars.  He decided to respond in kind with his very own Christmas album, and this is it!

The complete absurdity of a Jewish klezmer band playing Christmas carols seemed to be a good whimsical holiday gift for the clients of his ad agency.  He orchestrated and arranged ten songs and hired some of Chicago’s best studio musicians, klezmer players and even some members of the Chicago Symphony. The response was so unexpectedly good that Libman decided to release the CD commercially. He chuckles, “Maybe a klezmer Christmas wasn’t so inappropriate after all!” and has found that the album is popular among interfaith families who juggle Christmas and Chanukah music every year.  After Borak’s film, Oy to the World is mild stuff indeed, and a good respite from the usual pop Christmas music.

Tracklist: Deck the Halls, We Three Kings of Orient Are, Joy to the World, Little Drummer Boy, Carol of the Bells, Santa Grey Gesunderheit, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Jingle Balls, Good King Wenceslaus, Away In a Manger.

 – John Henry