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Classical - No. 50 - December, 2004

Music for the Holidays - Part I

Jason Victor Serinus


 

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

Admittedly, the prospect of auditioning close to 30 holiday discs in the weeks following the electoral steal did not immediately thrill me. Thankfully, I soon discovered that the spirit of unconditional love that is the true essence of Christmas has again inspired an entire hosiery department’s worth of noteworthy stocking-stuffers. Here are the best of the lot.

 
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JOHN BAYLESS: CHRISTMAS RHAPSODY

KOCH CD-9610

 

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5

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Pianist John Bayless has assembled a huge discography of piano arrangements of everything from Puccini to the Beatles. At last turning his attention to Christmas, he provides colorful, virtually symphonic treatments of everyone’s best-loved Christmas melodies. Thanks to impeccable taste, positive spirits and infectious wit, Bayless’ inventive renditions combine uncommon beauty with heartfelt love for the season. A total winner.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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BETH ANDERSON: SWALES AND ANGELS

NEW WORLD RECORDS 80610-2

 

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5

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How New York composer Anderson, ensconced across from the Brooklyn Museum, manages to capture the hometown, country air of the Kentucky swales (a meadow or marsh in which a lot of plants grow together) of her youth underscores the inexplicable miracle of composing genius. March Swale could easily be a holiday tune, its gentle, comforting nature beautifully conveyed by Belgium’s Rubio String Quartet. Contemporary music specialist Joseph Kubera and the Quartet play Anderson’s Piano Concerto, with others joining in to perform repertoire heard on her much lauded all-Anderson Weill Recital Hall concert. Anderson’s simple, unpretentious music, timeless in its warmth and decidedly understated modernity, is as perfectly suited for Christmas as for the first buds of spring or the colorful burst of a fall landscape.

 

 




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CHOIR OF KING’S COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE: BEST LOVED CHRISTMAS CAROLS

EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 86121 2 7

 

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You can’t get much closer to the greatness of English choral singing that the 550+ year old choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Since 1928, the choir has been broadcasting its annual Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on the BBC. Here, on two CDs, you’ll find standout renditions of virtually every traditional carol you can name. The CD transfers (especially on the second disc) fail to capture the beauty of the original analog recordings (1964-1979), but it won’t matter a bit if you play this disc in the background as you gather round the proverbial or metaphoric fire. For a fine sense of what the choir’s boys can do under director Stephen Cleobury, turn to their new, beautifully recorded Heavenly Voices’ program of sacred (if not necessarily Christmas) music by Franck, Mendelssohn, Verdi, Fauré, Schubert, Ireland and the like.






 

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A CHRISTMAS PRESENT FROM POLYPHONY

HYPERION NOEL2

 

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5

Performance

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Assembled from many of their eleven beautifully-recorded CDs, Stephen Layton’s Gramophone Award-winning choir delivers virtually symphonic, perfectly balanced a cappella renditions of mostly contemporary fare. Arvo Pärt’s “Magnificat” is as gorgeous as the sound of the sopranos throughout. The two pieces by John Rutter receive wonderful support from the City of London Sinfonia. Layton’s skill in bringing out key voices is second to none. This must-hear disc includes a heavenly preview of the group’s forthcoming disc of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux aeterna.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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CHRISTMAS REGROOVED

KOCH KOC-CD-9606

 

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Performance

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What a kick! The subtitle, “Holiday classics re-imagined, re-mixed and re-grooved by some of the most influential artists of the electronic music world” hardly prepares you for the fun of Christmas Regrooved. It’s bright, alright, with the highs on some tracks literally jumping out with fun as these sometimes hilarious remixes convert Santa’s chimney into a post-psychedelic disco dance palace equipped with every strobe light, hip-hop, platter-spinning effect imaginable. Joseph Jaime, EROS, Jay Atwood, Domingues & Ives, and Mystic Quintet are among the 9 artists who together contribute 14 fabulous tracks. You will love this disc.

 

 

 

 



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CHRISTMAS WITH LEONTYNE PRICE • DECCA 475 6152

JOAN SUTHERLAND • JOY TO THE WORLD • DECCA 475 6153

RENATA TEBALDI • CHRISTMAS FESTIVAL • DECCA 475 6154SCHWARZKOPF

 

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No lover of vocal music can afford to be without these fabled recitals from three of the greatest operatic sopranos of the last fifty years. In chronological order, which also happens to be the order of importance, the great soprano Leontyne Price joined forces with Herbert von Karajan and the silky Vienna Philharmonic in 1961, when she was approaching her absolute prime. Their fabled Christmas recording for RCA Living Stereo mixes such Christmas classics as “Silent Night” with works by Bach, Schubert and Mozart. The O Holy Night is tremendous, the unaccompanied “Sweet li’l Jesus” (no pun intended) priceless. Price pours out such a radiant stream of sensual highs that one can only dream of curling up in her throat and purring sweet nothings into eternity.

Coloratura Sutherland, accompanied in her prime year of 1965 by the New Philharmonia Orchestra and husband Richard Bonynge, dazzles beyond belief. Everything is pitched in high keys to show off Joanie’s brilliant upper range, with more than a few trills, variations and cadenzas thrown in for good measure. While some selections suffer from Sutherland’s lamentably mealy-mouthed pronunciation, La Stupenda lightens for the homey simplicity of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” clearly enunciating as she enjoys Douglas Gamley’s arrangement to bits. Judging from the energy she puts out, Dame Joan must have loved recording this tremendous album.

Lyrico-spinto Tebaldi, ably supported by the New Philharmonia and Douglas Gamley’s arrangements, summons, summons the considerable beauty still with her in 1971 to deliver a heart-warming program. Even where she can no longer lighten and float tones higher in the range, her intention and love for the music by Bach, Brahms, Franck, Gounod, Schubert and others make for great singing. Compare Tebaldi’s “Silent Night” to Price’s and Sutherland’s, and you’ve got three object lessons in how to coax greatness out of a simple melody without resorting to syrupy sentiment.

 

 

 

 

 


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D.C. ANDERSON: ALL IS CALM, ALL IS BRIGHT

LML MUSIC LML CD-136

 

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New York cabaret performer and actor D.C. Anderson produced the 2-CD holiday benefit recording, Cabaret Noel: A Broadway Cares Christmas. Blessed with one of the sweeter voices on the planet, his gentle and innocent treatments of songs by Stephen Sondheim, Fred Ebb, and a host of others (including himself) ingratiate despite tendencies toward syrupy sentiment. Especially noteworthy are the three-voiced multi-track on “Infant Holy,” the whistling duet on the short “Up on a Mayberry Housetop” medley, and the relief provided by humorous numbers.
 

 

 

 

 

 

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SEAN LOMAX: WHISTLING THIS CHRISTMAS

CD0010

 

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Performance

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Sonics

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Two-time Grand Champion whistler Sean Lomax (www.whistleon.com) teams up with pianist Joel Singer for the rare whistling disc of 16 Christmas favorites. Lomax’s pop/jazz style is at its most expressive when he begins to let loose and improvise in the faster numbers. There, his little jazz riffs, occasional bird chirps, surprise trills and fine intonation are hard to resist. While one may wish for a simple legato line and more classical phrasing on the slower selections, Lomax’s innate musicality and whistling mastery are beyond question.

 

 

 

 

 

 



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TINGSTAD & RUMBEL: PEACE ON EARTH

NARADA 70876-18914-2-3

 

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This lovely “Best of Christmas” album features the mellow musicianship of Eric Tingstad (guitars, synthesizer) and Nancy Rumbel (oboe, English horn, ocarinas, synthesizer, chimes, piano), plus three visits from keyboardist David Lanz. Two tracks are new, the rest taken from previous holiday albums. The original arrangements are simple, sweet, and relaxing in that classic Easy Listening cum New Age way. Your mind may not be taxed nor your spirit elevated, but your heart will be warmed.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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HANS CHRISTIAN: LIGHT & SPRIRIT

NEW EARTH NE 2416-2

 

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This well-known new age artist offers unique instrumental arrangements of sacred Renaissance vocal music by Obrecht, Costeley, Morley, Bateson, Byrd, Hassler, Ford, and Jones. The main instrumentation is duo modern celli, with the nyckelharpa added to provide a bright mix that the recording studio has lamentably rendered overly bright. An Indian sarangi, hand percussion and harmonium occasionally join in for variety, but the digital edginess diminishes pleasure.
 

 

 

 

 




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BILL PERRY: A CHRISTMAS CAROL

EROICA JDT 3197

 

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5

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This solo guitar debut CD from New Hampshire native Bill Perry represents his return to music making after a 20-year hiatus. Alternating his own arrangements of “White Christmas,” “Joy to the World,” and four other favorites with five original compositions, Perry’s closely recorded work unites jazz, folk, and classical elements in a sonorous, easy to enjoy mix. Lovely music to kick back with, regardless of the season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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STEVE GLOTZER: ACOUSTIC CHRISTMAS

SSR357

 

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Guitarist Steve Glotzer’s twenty-five year history in the music profession has included sharing the stage with many name artists and providing music for the MGM movie A Guy Thing, NBC's Ed, The District, and Passions; Fox's King of the Hill; Martha Stewart Living, and The Weather Channel. With selective addition of bass, percussion, drums, dobro, tambourine and bells, Glotzer’s overly bright proceedings are lively, good-natured and mostly upbeat, if not exactly inspired.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Continue to Part II

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