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Music For the Holidays - No. 44 - December, 2003

Jason Victor Serinus


 

For a few words about my reviewing process and preferences, please see the introduction to Classical Review #36.

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Though a shaky economy and eroding profits have left the music industry suing illegal downloaders right and left, what commitment remains to the heart-centered nature of Judeo-Christian celebration again graces us with a lovely helping of holiday recordings. Absorbing the beauties of this music can help us transcend a political climate that justifies aggression in Messianic terms, inspiring us to connect with the love at the center of all great spiritual teachings.

WOLCUM YULE

ANONYMOUS 4

HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 907325

 

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5

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The chart-topping Anonymous 4 women’s vocal quartet returns with a lovely collection of Celtic and British songs and carols. Although carols are often considered Christian in nature, Johanna Maria Rose’s liner notes point to the pagan, pre-Christian origins of music associated with the Celtic winter solstice Yuletide celebration. In fact, the word “carol” (derived from the French “carole’) originally referred to the ancient ritual circle dances and call-and-response chanting that were used in year-round magical ceremonies.

Anonymous 4, at times complemented by Andrew Lawrence-King on harp and psaltery, mixes traditional music of the British Isles with more modern fare. The singing, as sweet as ever, betrays a uniform, less than magical simplicity of utterance that gains interest in the more contemporary harmonies of Richard Rodney Bennett, Geoffrey Burgon, Benjamin Britten and (commissioned especially for them) Peter Maxwell Davies.

 


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LIONHEART

TYDINGS TREW

KOCH KIC CD 7562

 

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5

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Sonics

*

The six-man, New York City-based Lionheart a cappella vocal ensemble began nine years ago when several of its members came together to sing chant. With two national tours with Anonymous 4 and a number of lauded discs under their belts, the men have become one of this country’s finest male ensembles specializing in medieval and modern repertoire.

This beautiful assemblage of medieval English carols and motets - often derived from ancient pagan melodies later retrofitted to Christian ends - is graced by a unanimity of vision that produces truly heart-centered singing. Lionheart’s uncommon vocal beauty, abetted by the captivating resonance of New York’s Church of the Ascension, makes for wonderful listening.

 

 

 

 


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SAINT THOMAS CHOIR OF BOYS & MEN

A CAPPELLA II

KOCH KIC CD 7490

 

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5

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*

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Keeper of the Anglican musical tradition in the United States, this exceptional choir consists of twelve professional adult singers and sixteen to twenty boys. The boys, blessed with beautiful voices, attend Saint Thomas Choir School, the only church-related residential choir school in the United States, situated one block from Carnegie Hall.

At times accompanied by the wondrous sounds of Saint Thomas Church’s organs, the choir’s selection of 19th and 20th century hymns proves consistently engaging. This is the quality of singing and program that every church and community choir will wish to emulate. Highest possible recommendation.

 

 

 

 

 

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CLASSIC COUNTRY CHRISTMAS

TIME LIFE MUSIC TCD904 M18927

 

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5

Performance

*

Sonics

*

Tammy Wynette’s “White Christmas,” sung with a whisky-tinged voice that can tear your heart out, paves the way for Elvis’ “Blue Christmas,” the great Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas,” and 17 other offerings. Some selections, such as Bobby Helms and the Anita Kerr Singers’ “Jingle Bell Rock” and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” seem as central to the American mythos as hot fudge sundaes and Mickey Mouse. Though some of the newcomers sing like sleepwalkers, their prosaic utterances products of the Nashville machine, contributions by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and other unforgettables make this collection hard to beat.

 

 

 

 

 


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PROKOFIEV: PETER AND THE WOLF

BEINTUS: WOLF TRACKS

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, SOPHIA LOREN, BILL CLINTON

RUSSIAN NATIONAL ORCHESTRA, KENT NAGANO

PENTATONE CLASSICS 5186 012

 

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Though eyebrows surely raise upon learning that former President Bill Clinton narrates a wolf’s tale, cynicism melts upon learning that the disc is an act of charity. Clinton, narrator of Jean-Pascal Beintus’ newly commissioned Wolf Tracks, donates his royalties to the International AIDS Trust. Loren, narrator of the beloved Prokofiev, gives her money to Magic Of Music, an arts therapy program for youth sponsored by the RNO. And Gorbachev, who provides short introductions and epilogue, gives his share to the Green Cross International environmental organization.

Loren begins rather deadpan, at times sounding like the wise grandmother she is, but quickly warms to the task as drama and music intensify. She’s a delight. Clinton isn’t quite in her class, but he nicely narrates Wolf Tracks, teaching the need to cherish and protect natural resources and respect those different from us. Kent Nagano does a great job with the orchestration, and the musical climaxes on this audiophile quality recording, also available in high- resolution surround sound format, are thrilling. A Five Star Stocking Stuffer.

 

 



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A HANUKKA CELEBRATON

NAXOS 8.559410

 

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5

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This well-recorded assemblage of traditional and original settings by Jewish composers is one of 50 CDs expected from the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music. Release of this incomparable collection is timed to celebrate 2004’s 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews in America. More than 600 works written by over 200 composers – nearly half of them living – have been newly recorded, most either for the first time or in new reconstructions or arrangements. The music of Kurt Weill, Darius Milhaud and Leonard Bernstein figures prominently among early releases. (www.milkenarchive.org).

While some of the disc’s selections, especially those in Yiddish, have an engaging old world feel, much of the new material seems harmonically unimaginative. Some works hold interest, others seem more formulaic than inspired.

 


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A WINDHAM HILL CHRISTMAS II

BMG ARISTA 82876-53901-2

 

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5

Performance

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Classic Windham Hill, which means mellow mellow renditions of Christmas favorites with a nouveau sense of space and stillness. Guitarist and Windham Hill founder Alex de Grassi joins David Cullen for a guitar duet of “I Wonder as I Wander;” guitarist Steve Erquiaga strums the most laid-back “Joy to the World” imaginable; and Philip Aaberg’s non-sexist “God Rest Ye Merry” evokes rolling Montana plains rather than rollicking sleigh rides. Other well-known artists include Liz Story, Barbara Higbie, Tracy Silverman, and the inevitable George Winston. Perfect background for vegan eggnog around a non-polluting fire.

 

 

 

 

 



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DECK THE HALLS and JOY TO THE WORLD

VALARIE ALEXANDRA VALOIS

EROICA JDT 3073 and JDT 3091

 

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5

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Sonics

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Her teacher and mentor, the legendary pianist Michelangeli, called her “an eagle among pigeons – and she is simply the best.” Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich proclaimed “Absolutely unforgettable! – In a class by herself.” Though arrangements of holiday favorites are not the best way to sample a pianist’s artistry, the results are unquestionably lovely. Captured distantly in an overly resonant space, Valois’ sweet takes on everything from “I Wonder as I Wander” to “The Coventry Carol,” with alternate arrangements of “The Holly and the Ivy” and “Silent Night” on different discs, are sensitively and lovingly performed. http://www.eroica.com/vav-music.html.

 

 

 

 

 

 



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THE TIME-LIFE TREASURY OF CHRISTMAS: EVERGREEN

TIME-LIFE M18950 A 70348

 

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5

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Opening with a tune immortalized by Nat King Cole, Mel Tormé’s “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” this collection entrusts familiar Christmas music to pop and soul performers. Celine Dion may fail to brown her chestnuts, but Mariah Carey sets them aflame (and survives unimaginative accompaniment) by singing the multi-octaved pants off “O Holy Night.” Other total winners include Linda Rondstadt’s “I Wonder as I Wander” and the late John Denver’s “What Child is This?” You may wish to send Mannheim Steamroller “Away in the Manger,” but when Vanessa Williams and Bobby Caldwell sing “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” you’ll gladly welcome them in. Kenny Loggins, Vince Gill, Michael Bolton, Luther Vandross, Donna Summer, Cyndi Lauper, Neil Diamond, Gloria Estefan and others make this disc irresistible.

 

 

 

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SIR JOHN TAVENER: IKON OF EROS

MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA AND CHORALE, PAUL GOODWIN COND.

REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR-102

 

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5

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Gorgeous, mystical music with the power to entrance. Sir John Taverner, a follower of the Greek Orthodox faith, writes simple, repetitive compositions that embody the spiritual essence of prayer. Believing that “music is liquid metaphysics,” Tavener creates a potentially mesmerizing “sense of sacred space.” Around fine contributions from baritone Tim Krol (formerly of Chanticleer), strange-voiced soprano Patricia Rozario, and sweet-toned violinist Jorja Fleezanis, the chorus intones the Greek words for Transfiguration, Eros (Divine Love), Ecstasy, and the unending song of the Angels.

In an extended interview included on the disc, Tavener explains:

“If I’m able to create even a modicum of beauty, then I know all people will respond to it. It cannot be otherwise, because God is beautiful. Whether we believe in God or not doesn’t matter, because we respond to beauty.”

Slowing down – sitting or lying in silence by candlelight would be ideal – is essential to experience Tavener’s reverential universe. This is a universe that is always with us, Tavener suggests, if we are only willing to tune in. Captured in demonstration quality 24-bit HDCD sound by Prof. Keith Johnson, this world premiere recording is an extraordinary achievement. Unless the unending repetition of angelic and Greek-tinged melodies gets to you - some may suspect a paucity of musical imagination - expect to ascend.


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CHANTICLEER

EVENING PRAYER: PURCELL

TELDEC CLASSICS 2564 60290-2

 

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Dubbed “a veritable orchestra of voices,” the Grammy award-winning men’s vocal ensemble Chanticleer upholds its reputation for excellence. Under the direction of Joseph Jennings, Chanticleer joins Skip Sempé and his Capriccio Stravagante original instrument orchestra for anthems and sacred songs by Henry Purcell (1659-1695). In his short life, Purcell helped forge a musical style quintessentially English, writing stately, slow, and formal compositions distinguished by intriguing counterpoint. While their beauty is undeniable, I cannot forget that their chaste piety soothed King and court while pursuing extravagant acquisition and world conquest. Regardless, the performances are superb. Sopranos Christopher Fritzche and Ian Howell weaving around each other in “O Lord, rebuke me not” is a special highlight. The last track’s “My heart is inditing” provides welcome full voiced contrast.

 

 



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PALESTRINA: MUSIC FOR ADVENT & CHRISTMAS

THE CHOIR OF WESTMINSTER CATHEDRAL

HYPERION CDA 67396

 

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The gorgeous polyphony of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/6-1594) is considered the epitome of high Renaissance Roman Catholic music. This assortment of Palestrina’s music for advent and Christmas is sung by the choir of the 100 year old Westminster Cathedral. With a recording tradition dating from 1908, the choir has even garnered a Gramophone Record of the Year award. Master of Music Martin Baker’s current crop of boy sopranos produce a slightly cloying sound – the voices of New York’s Saint Thomas Choir seem far more rounded – but the music remains well-served.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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J.S. BACH: CHRISTMAS CANTATAS FROM LEIPZIG (LEIPZIGER WEIHNACHTSKANTATEN)

COLLEGIUM VOCALE GENT, PHILIPPE HERREWEGHE (HARMONIA MUNDI 2 SACD HMC 801781.82

 

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In my modest pile of Bach Christmas season cantatas I find at least ten, some of major length. This wonderfully recorded multi-channel SACD, whose potentially superior sound can be heard even in two-channel with a good (i.e., more than entry level) SACD player, offers five cantatas composed in Leipzig. Herreweghe’s early instrument performances are characterized by a captivating sense of space and mellowness. John Eliot Gardiner recorded BWV 63, 121, and 133 a few years ago with authentic instruments and equally excellent soloists. Comparing BMV 121 finds Gardiner’s rhythms more pointed, the conception sharper. It’s a question of aesthetics. What remains indisputable is the sheer beauty of Bach’s music and Herreweghe’s realizations.

 

 

 

 


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J.S. BACH: CHRISTMAS ORATORIO BWV 248

THE NETHERLANDS BACH SOCIETY

CHANNEL CLASSICS 2 SACD CCS SA 20103

 

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5

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From the first astounding strokes of the timpani, the sound of this multi-channel SACD triumphs. So does the extravagant packaging, whose CD box includes a hard cover booklet with numerous art reproductions from Utrecht’s Museum Catharijneconvent. This labor of love performance of Bach’s glorious extended Christmas cantata is lovely, the chorus exhibiting a slightly naïve sound. John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and world-class, major name soloists offer an even more impressive, sharply delineated performance, but that disc’s early digital sonics show their one-dimensional age. For music loving graduates of the boom box/rack system/Bose speaker syndrome that replaces musical truth with splash and splatz, this makes a perfect gift.

 

 

 

 

 



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JOY TO THE WORLD

NAXOS 8.557160

 

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Sonics

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This winning compilation of 20 familiar Christmas carols features four different church choirs and ensembles, chief among them the Worcester Cathedral Choir and the Choir of Tewkesbury Abbey. Everything is sincerely and lovingly performed, The Elora Festival Singers’ “Silent Night” exceedingly tender. As is often the case with this bargain label, the sound is not demonstration class. Regardless, for holiday festivities or dining background, this collection is near ideal.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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WINTER KOLEDNICA: SEASONAL CAROLS FROM SLOVENIA

NAXOS WORLD 76053-2

 

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5

Performance

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Slovenia, a country of 2 million, lies in the heart of Europe nestled between Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Italy. With singing their primary form of musical expression, the Slovenes have managed to preserve much of their traditional heritage. Songs, usually written for three or more voices, are in major keys and for most part sung loudly without changes of dynamics or tempo. While the familiar harmonies are less engaging than those of Bulgaria and the Balkans, this is a rare opportunity to hear authentic performances recorded as early as 1962 and preserved by the Institute of Ethnomusicology of the Slovene Acaademy of Sciences and Arts.

 

 

 

 




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CHRISTMAS WITH THE TALLIS SCHOLARS

GIMELL CDGIM202

 

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This two-disc collection features The Tallis Scholars, an exceptionally smooth, angelic sounding a cappella mixed voice ensemble specializing in medieval and Renaissance vocal music. This assemblage of chants, carols, chorales, hymns, motets and masses brings together for the first time Christmas music the group has previously featured on a number of discs. The first CD offers an all-English program from their Christmas Carols and Motets recording, and includes medieval carols and polyphony by Josquin, Verdelot, Victoria, Praetorius, and Clemens. The second disc is devoted to plainchant and music based on chant, culminating in a major mass by Tallis. A beautiful and holy offering.

 

 

 

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TRIODION: ARVO PART

POLYPHONY, STEPHEN LAYTON COND

HYPERION CDA67375

 

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This haunting disc contains vocal music written by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt between 1996 and 2002. Although not specifically created for the Christmas season, the eight works’ religious nature and spiritual impact reflects the depth of Pärt’s Christian faith. Settings of Biblical texts, sermons and hymns, some in English, transport the listener to a unique and holy universe. Some pieces are highly energized, others slow and transcendent. The singing is superb, the acoustic of London’s Temple Church and Christopher Bowers-Broadbent’s organ expertly captured. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

 




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JIM BRICKMAN: PEACE

WINDHAM HILL 82876-52896-2

 

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I almost missed this absolutely lovely, mellow album. It’s such a winning presentation that I find myself going back to it even as I write reviews of more traditional Christmas fare.

Born in Cleveland, Brickman entered the pop arena as a soloist in 1994. Among his nine albums, the Platinum-selling holiday album The Gift has sold over 1 million copies. The 1999 album Destiny sold over 500,000 copies, marking Jim's fourth Gold record, and put him over the 5 million mark in career sales. This was followed in 2000 by a PBS special.

If there is a theme for this album, it derives from a song Brickman co-composed, “Peace (Where the Heart Is).” Brickman’s 13 selections include several he arranged, two he composed, and others on which he provides piano. Other instrumentalists include the famed Blind Boys of Alabama, Anne Cochran & Tracy Silverman, Kristy Starling, and Collin Raye. This is perhaps the sweetest disc of the season.

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LES GRANDS AIRS DE NOËL – CHRISTMAS’ GREATEST SONGS

ANALEKA ANS 9125-6

 

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If you like your Christmas fare traditional, look no further. The enterprising new Canadian label Analekta gives us a two-disc assortment that on one disc offers traditional fare performed by Choeur Les Rhapsodes, Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal, Choeur Les Rhapsodes, and Orchestre symphonique de Québec. Soprano Lyne Fortin supplies nicely voiced, dramatically-tinged solos on several selections. Many of the arrangements you’ve heard a thousand times over, which may be just what you’re looking for.

The second disc is another story. Beginning with ensemble Strada singing “De matin al rescountra lou trin,” we discover a number of more contemporary interpretations. Though we’ve got the usual “God rest you merry, Gentleman,” the last two selections on the disc are José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” and John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas,” both performed by La Bande Magnetik. A nice balance.

 


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Quintessence Goes Christmas

Quintessence Saxophone Quintet

CPO 999 917-2

 

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Let’s end on a bright note. Quintessence is a German saxophone quintet that specializes in jazzy arrangements of classical works. With nine albums to their credit, music lovers worldwide know them from participation in a Swinging Bach Festival in Leipzig which commemorated the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death and was broadcast live in 80 countries.

This disc is a delight. There’s a lightness to many of the performances, which range from a smiling version of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Overture” to Bach’s “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” and “Jesu, Joy of man’s desiring.” Even when we get serious, as in Albinoni’s “Adagio,” the sound is light and fanciful. The last two tracks, a swinging “Christmas in Hollywood” and “We Wish you a merry Christmas,” provide a perfect send-off. These men are on a roll. I’m grooving to Vaughan Williams’ “Christmas Dance” as I type.

This disc deserves three thumbs up, and is certainly worthy of year-round listening. CPO may not have the most transparent sound, but given that we’re talking about five saxophones, those with bright systems will be grateful. Super.

Unavailable at press time, but undoubtedly of high quality, are a host of Christmas discs from Universal Classics, distributors of classical labels DG, Decca and Philips. Keep your eyes open for SIMPLY CHRISTMAS (DECCA), featuring seasonal favorites performed by Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, Joan Sutherland, Kiri Te Kanawa, Renata Tebaldi, The Choir of King's College Cambridge and others; THE INCREDIBLE CHRISTMAS ALBUM, with Andrea Bocelli, Bing Crosby, Luciano Pavarotti, Ella Fitzgerald, Burl Ives, Mel Tormé, Bond, Hayley Westenra, Vanessa Williams, Plácido Domingo, Harry Belafonte, Joan Sutherland, the Carpenters, the Boston Pops etc.; SWINGLE SINGERS: CHRISTMASTIME (PHILIPS), which is undoubtedly fabulous; POMERIUM: OLD WORLD CHRISTMAS (ARCHIV); and HANDEL’S MESSIAH: FOREVER (DVD), which preserves the Dublin 250th anniversary performance of the work’s premiere with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and featuring soloists Sylvia McNair, Anne Sofie von Otter, Jerry Hadley, Michael Chance and Robert Lloyd.
 

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2003 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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