Music for Christmas - Part II

Classical Carols: Jeffrey Biegel, piano (Koch International Classics KIC-CD-7737)

  • Performance: Sound: f

Classical CarolsWhat a magical surprise! Just as you wonder why a disc of Christmas carols begins with Debussy's Clair de Lune, the sounds of "Silent Night" begin to emerge from the moonlight. Haydn, Handel, Beethoven, Saint-Saens, Chopin, Brahms, Mozart – they're all here, dancing along with Christmas carols.

Arranger Carolyne M. Taylor has done a marvelous job with this music, which Jeffrey Beigel interprets with the gentlest and most loving of touches. Sometimes humor abounds, as in the melding of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" with a sonata by Clementi. Wonderfully recorded, this CD earns a most enthusiastic two thumbs up.


The Christmas Spirit: The World's Favourite Hymns and Carols (Decca 475 9177)

  • Performance: Sound:

The Christmas SpiritPavarotti, Sutherland, Te Kanawa, Price, Tebaldi, Ferrier, King's College Choir – in short, the London/Decca stable of star players – make mostly single appearances on these two discs of tracks recorded 1952 - 1985. Want to hear how baritone Simon Keenlyside sounded as a promising boy treble in The Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge? You can here. This reissue of 1996 remasterings wears its age quite well.


Chanticleer: Let it Snow (Warner Classics R2 284988)

  • Performance: Sound:

Chanticleer: Let it SnowWell, here's a surprise. The famed male vocal ensemble Chanticleer opens its latest holiday CD, not with an unaccompanied vocal arrangement of pious Renaissance pronouncements, but with a retro pop thing that features The Chanticleer Orchestra. Even Schubert's beloved "Ave Maria," performed much slower than usual in Joseph Jennings' arrangement, receives the kind of silky accompaniment that would make Mantovani proud; only at 3:13 do the voices finally join in. "Silent Night," unnaturally reverbed, gets another overly soupy treatment. "Dum dum dum dum… O Holy Night" – is this Chanticleer or the Five Tops? For better or worse, the quality of the tenors, male sopranos and male altos gives it away. Clearly, someone had a concept, and Chanticleer ran with it. Some who run the other way may find me leading the pack to the Andrews Sisters.


Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker | Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra (Telarc CD-80674)

  • Performance: Sound:

NutcrackerIf you're going to indulge in music from The Nutcracker, how about a recording in superb sound? Telarc of course delivers the goods, its warm, clear, naturally detailed, enveloping Sound and large dynamic range making for an instant recommendation. The repertoire is of course perfect for Kunzel, who has this idiom down pat. Warmly recommended.


Machet die Tore weit: Baroque Christmas Cantatas from Central Germany (CPO 777 332-2)

  • Performance: Sound:

Machet die Tore weitFeaturing the Sashsisches Vocalensemble and Bartzdorfer Hofkapelle under Matthias Jung, this lovely program features rarely heard music by Schelle, Petritz, Elebach, Jacobi, Liebe, and Bessel. This isn't the most rousing music ever recorded, but it is lovingly sung and finely played, and will surely gratify baroque aficionados.


Women In Chant: The Announcement Of Christmas (Sounds True M1195D)

  • Performance: Sound:

Women In ChantThe Choir of Benedictine Nuns of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT sing "the very first Christmas music the world ever produced, which is still sung today in its original Latin form." The voices are neither perfectly blended nor always steady, but the sincerity and devotion of these Sisters make the disc self-recommending. The beautifully produced 64-page booklet, available in pdf form, includes translations, copious photos, informative dedications to the women named by St. Matthew in the Genealogy of Jesus, and a huge amount of historical information.


Sweet Music of Christmas: University of Texas Chamber Singers, James Morrow conductor (Koch KIC-CD-7698)

  • Performance: Sound:

Sweet Music of ChristmasBeautiful, beautiful singing from a first rate choir, graced by Laura Koch's marvelous high soprano and a wonderful, airy acoustic. The consistently gratifying repertoire ranges from French and English Carols to fare by Rachmaninov, Praetorius, Warlock, and Part. Despite what our President has to say, they must be doing something right in Texas. Highly recommended.


Karolju Christmas Music from Rouse, Lutoslawski and Rodrigo (RCA Red Seal 88697-11561-2)

  • Performance: Sound:

Karolju Christmas Music from RouseDavid Zinman conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia Chorus in the world premiere recording of Christopher Rouse's lovely Karolju. Written for Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony in 1991, this marvelous, irresistible music is destined to be performed hundreds of times over the next decade. Rounding out the CD are Lutoslawski's Polish Christmas Carols and Rodrigo's Retablo de Navidid. This music is so life-affirming, it could make the grinch whole stole Christmas search for another profession.


Christmas Break: A Relaxing Classical Mix (Telarc CD-80687)

  • Performance: Sound:

Christmas BreakTelarc scores a 10 with this compilation from pianist Michael Chertock, harpist Ylanda Kondonassis, the great Robert Shaw Chamber Singers, guitarist David Russell, Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque, and the conditionally loving Mormon Tabernacle Choir. A total winner, perfect for background at your holiday get-together.


P.D.Q. Bach & Peter Schickele: The Jekyll & Hyde Tour (Telarc CD-80666)

  • Performance: Sound:

P.D.Q. Bach & Peter SchickeleFor those who long for an alternative to pious fare about King Jesus, P.D.Q. Bach presents a decidedly unblessed alternative that begins with a toast to an about-to-be-decapitated King. The master's hilarious introduction to the Four-Next-To-Last Songs is worth its weight in gold. Put this on before your Christmas dinner blessing, and your dilemma of what to do with those sanctimonious relatives you'd prefer to never see again may finally be resolved. That is, unless they love classical music, in which case they may tell you to stop the blessing and turn up the volume. Fabulous.


The Ultimate Classical Christmas (Sony Classical 88697-14332-2)

  • Performance: Sound:

The Ultimate Classical ChristmasWhy bother with a fancy cover, when you've got opera stars Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras, Horne, von Stade, Battle; instrumentalists Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Wynton Marsalis and guitarist John Williams; and the Vienna Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra on one disc? If you don't know any of these artists, this disc of recycled material will provide ear-opening happiness for those who aren't sticklers for classical correctness.


Roderick Elms: Festive Frolic (Naxos 8.570793)

  • Performance: Sound:

Roderick ElmsBritish composer Roderick Elms writes and arranges lovely stuff that gets widely performed in the U.K. After hearing this disc, one hopes it will receive many airings in the U.S. as well. Stephen Bell conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Peter Broadbent's Joyful Company of Singers, with fine contributions from tenor Mark Wilde and organist Stuart Nicholson. Though this disc can't match Telarc or Sony/BMG for sound quality, it is still a joy.


Noels: French Carols of the 18th century on instruments | Les Boreades de Montreal (Atma ACD 1 2118)

  • Performance: Sound:

NoelsThank God, after Lord knows how many sugary Christmas CDs, here's one that features spicier fare, wonderfully performed on authentic baroque instruments. The four players of Canada's Les Boreades do a wonderful job with music by Dandrieu, Corrette, Daquin, and Balbastre. Highly recommended.


Handel: Messiah | London Symphony Orchestra Sir Colin Davis (LSO Live SACD LSO0607)

  • Performance: Sound:

Handel: MessiahCaptured in high-resolution surround sound, here's Sir Colin Davis singing along with his orchestra in a live recording that features modern instruments. The star soloists Susan Gritton, Sara Mingardo, Mark Padmore (a superb Handelian whose recent disc of Handel arias is far preferable to Ian Bostridge's overly affected account), and Alastair Miles show their familiarity with period practice and embellishments. There's even a bonus DVD that highlights favorite hits and includes an interview with Sir Colin.


Sacred Music: Von Bingen, Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart (Naive 4-CD 22186 05126)

  • Performance: Sound:

Sacred MusicThis unbeatable collection includes four previously released, highly lauded CDs variously containing three Bach cantatas (180, 49 & 115), Mozart's Mass in C Minor, four works by Vivaldi (Gloria, Magnificat, and Concerti rv 128 & 563), and 12th century Gregorian chants by Hildegard von Bingen and Herrad von Landberg. The performers are amongst the best in this label's stable: Concerto Italiano (Rinaldo Alessandrini), Discantus (Brigitte Lesne), Accentus, and such superb soloists as Sandrine Piau, Christoph Pregardien, and Andreas Scholl. Those who do not already have these recordings in their collection are urged to grab this box while it's available.


Michael Praetorius: Christmas Vespers | Apollo's Fire Baroque Orchestra (Koch KIC-CD-7673)

  • Performance: Sound:

Michael PraetoriusSelections from three collections by Praetorius published between 1612 and 1621. Performed on period instruments by Apollo's Fire (The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra), along with Apollo's Singers & Apollo's Musettes directed by Jeannette Sorrell, the music is predictably beautiful. Lovers of this repertoire need not hesitate.


The Christmas Collection: The Sixteen, Harry Christophers (CORO 3-CD COR 16054)

  • Performance: Sound:

The Christmas CollectionThe Sixteen have won so many awards over the years for their impeccable choral singing that those who do not know their work are encouraged to dive in head first. The first CD in this box set, A Traditional Christmas Carol Collection, was recorded in 1991, and reissued in 2006 on CORO, the ensemble's own label. There's nothing surprising about the arrangements, other than the fine singing. Hodie: An English Christmas Collection, recorded 1990 and 1992, contains 20th century works by Howells, Britten (A Ceremony of Carols), Warlock, Tavener, and Leighton. Finally, Christus Natus Est: An Early English Christmas, is a livelier affair, with the fuller sound that befits a recording from 2004. This box by itself could fulfill all your Christmas needs. Highly recommended.


40 Most Beautiful Christmas Classics (Warner 2-CD 2564 69737-9)

  • Performance: Sound:

40 Most Beautiful Christmas ClassicsOnce past the hackneyed "most, best, finest" title, one discovers superb performances from the likes of Dawn Upshaw & Chanticleer, Sumi Jo, Jose Carrerras, Placido Domingo, Thomas Hampson, Choir of New College Oxford, etc. In short, this recycled compilation showcases some of the finest artists and forces that Erato, Warner, Teldec recorded in holiday repertoire between 1963 and 2001. I waxed ecstatic about some of these performances the first time around, and welcome them again.