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Classical - No. 50 - December, 2004

Music for the Holidays - Part II

Jason Victor Serinus


 

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

 
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JOHANN ROSENMÜLLER: WEIHNACHTSHISTORIE

CANTUS CÖLLN

HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 901861

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

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Born in Leipzig 66 years before J.S. Bach, Rosenmüller’s career as a composer was interrupted in 1655 when he had to flee the city after being charged with pederasty. Dismissed from all his posts and imprisoned, he eventually fled to Hamburg, then Venice, where he later renewed his career. This CD, an approximation of an Italian-style Renaissance Christmas in Leipzig, features Rosenmüller’s beautiful sacred music for the holiday season. With Konrad Junghänel conducting Cantus Cölln, one of our pre-eminent early music ensembles, the minimally accompanied (violin, violincello, organ) performances are exemplary.

 

 

 

 




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YELLOWJACKETS: PEACE ROUND, A CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION

HEADS UP HUCD 3090

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

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With two Grammy-nominated albums to their credit, jazz ensemble Yellowjackets produces a winning disc distinguished by inventiveness and good spirits. Featuring keyboardist and founding member Russell Ferrante plus others on sax, bass and drums, these mild performances have a delightful, homey feel. Enjoy the imaginative, spacey intro to Joseph Mohr’s arrangement of “Silent Night,” and the mellowness of it all.

 

 

 

 

 

 




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J.S. BACH: CHRISTMAS ORATORIO

AKADEMIE FÜR ALTE MUSIK BERLIN, RIAS-KAMMERCHOR, RENÉ JACOBS COND. ™ HARMONIA MUNDI HMX 2901630.31

 

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If you think Bach music can’t be lively and joyful, check out this re-release of René Jacob’s well-recorded performance of the six cantatas that comprise his wonderful Christmas Oratorio. Feast as well on the 120-page deluxe edition filled with gorgeous graphics, translations, and erudite commentary. The superb soloists include a shining Andreas Scholl as the Evangelist and star turns from Dorothea Röschmann (now at the Met), Werner Güra and Klaus Häger. This wonderful performance deserves a place on your shelf.

 

 

 

 

 



 

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A LEROY ANDERSON CHRISTMAS

DECCA B0003552-02

 

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5

Performance

*

Sonics

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What would an American Christmas be like without Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops’ classic rendition of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride? As myth reinforcing as a Norman Rockwell graphic, Harvard graduate Anderson’s delightful compositions and arrangements made him the American composer most performed by American orchestras in 1953. In addition to Sleigh Ride, the disc features Anderson conducting his three infectious Suites of Carols for Brass Choir, String Orchestra, and Woodwind Ensemble, plus his joyful medley, A Christmas Festival. The huge FBI anti-piracy warning dominating half the label bespeaks the music’s universal appeal.


 

 

 

 


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KING’S SINGERS CHRISTMAS

SIGNUM TWO SIGCD502

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

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The King’s Singers – two countertenors, one tenor, two baritones, and one bass – have been performing worldwide since they were founded in 1968 by six choral scholars from King’s College, Cambridge. Thanks to the striking timbre of their countertenors and tenor, their sound remains unique. With impeccable intonation and musicianship – their mastery of dynamics and color is first class -- the ensemble delivers a thoroughly pleasing, heartfelt program of traditional and modern carols (from Praetorius, J.S. Bach, and the revered Anon. to Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, John Rutter, and Peter Warlock). With only two tracks featuring accompaniment, we have over 70 minutes of their wonderful sound to revel in.



 

 


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TCHAIKOVSKY’S GREATEST HIT: THE ULTIMATE NUTCRACKER

BMG 82876-62821-2

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

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Although I could go on for days about BMG’s choice to recycle their back catalogue rather than recording anew, this disc has a lot going for it. Eugene Ormandy’s mono Philadelphia Orchestra rendition of Tchaikovsky’s sugar-coated family fantasy, written by the part of his psyche able to transcend the torture of internalized homophobia, will do just fine for those who play music in the background and don’t focus on particulars. Fun follows in the form of a droll complete Nutcracker suite played by the unlikely Modern Mandolin Quartet. Delivery the ultimate spoof, Spike Jones and the City Slickers crack the nut with decidedly square, mildly irreverent but undeniably appealing whimsy. The First Piano Quartet’s novel renditions of the Dance of the Reed Flutes and Waltz of the Flowers cap the enjoyment.
 

 

 




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HEIDI GRANT MURPHY: THE GIFTS OF CHRISTMAS

KOCH-CD-7580

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

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Gifted soprano Grant Murphy especially radiant high on “I Wonder as I Wander” cap a winning collection that balances traditional Christmas songs with others by John Rutter, Max Reger, and Hugo Wolf. The soprano’s lovely voice, well supported by Kevin Murphy’s piano, benefits from several original arrangements by Richard Walters, including a standout version of “Silent Night.” The absence of translations, and the occasional tendency to pour it on thick where unaffected vocalism would prove ideal – Wolf’s “Schlafendes Jesuskind” drowns in syrup -- detract from an otherwise beautiful release.


 

 

 

 

 


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APOLLO’S FIRE: NOELS & CAROLS FROM THE OLDE WORLD

KOCH KIC CD 7582

 

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5

Performance

*

Sonics

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Jeannette Sorrell’s Cleveland-based Baroque Orchestra has assembled an adventurous program that mixes traditional European carols with vocal and orchestral works by Biber, Charpentier, Purcell, and Cima. Alas, the authentic-instrument performances are marred by close miking and strong conducting that grants such works as the familiar “Il est né le divin enfant” with an overly bright aggressiveness more suited for the chant, “Christ is born, Get used to it!”

 

 

 

 

 





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CHRISTMAS WITH THE TRAPP FAMILY SINGERS

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON B0003118-02

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

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Far more real than in The Sound of Music, the famous Trapp Family Singers finally make their way to CD via historic mono recordings from the early 1950’s. While the singing is faultless and unquestionably sincere, this decidedly Old World a cappella program has a small-voiced, retro feel more suited to the family’s lodge in Stowe, VT than urban living rooms. Why the bad edit at the start of “Hirten, wachet auf!”?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




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A WINDHAM HILL CHRISTMAS

WINDHAM HILL 82876 64413 2

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

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THE VERY BEST OF CELTIC CHRISTMAS

WINDHAM HILL 82876 64626 2

 

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5

Performance

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On A Windham Hill Christmas, the perpetual Windham Hill commissions 14 of its most popular artists to produce just what you’d expect. Highlights are Sean Harkness’ “Christmas Time is Here,” the appealing variety of Tracy Silverman’s arrangement “O Holy Night,” Liz Story’s quite interesting “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Steve Erquiaga’s winning “Little Drummer Boy,” Tim Story’s lovely “The Holy and the Ivy,” the welcome fun of Philip Aaberg’s “The Compeat Nutracker Sweet,” and George Winston surprisingly succeeding in making harmonicas sound like bagpipes. The remaining tracks are mellow and mundane.



The Celtic Christmas compilation offers 19 tracks drawn from the six Windham Hill CC volumes that have collectively sold over a million copies. Mostly sticking to tried and true formulas, classical artists James Galway and Benjamin Verdery join a host of folkier musicians to produce a most appealing set.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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ANTON SCHWARZ: HOLIDAY TIME

AJ-1003 (available from www.antonjazz.com)

 

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Performance

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Sonics

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Bay Area tenor saxophonist Anton Schwartz joins with a jazz pianist, bassist, and drummer to perform a short, lower priced set of five improvs on classic Christmas melodies. Schwartz and crew occasionally sell out Yoshi’s, the Bay Area’s premiere jazz club, but this disc does not suggest they’re ready for an international career. While the feeling is good-natured and sometimes tongue-in-cheek, and the playing more than competent, the improvisations themselves, which begin with fairly straight renditions of the melody line, do not offer sufficient variety or inventiveness to elevate them above the level of easy listening fare.
 

 

 

 


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MESSIAH REMIX

CANTELOUPE CA21020

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

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The founders of New York’s Bang on a Can have commissioned eleven well-known trendy artists, some famed for their work in electronic and tape media, to offer original sonic remixes of Messiah. Besides sounding overly bright and grating, many of these computerized hits by Tod Machover, Charles Amirkhanian, Phil Kline, Eve Beglarian and others are routine, even cynical, as though the composers could care less about Handel’s masterpiece. Laetitia Sonami’s “Overture on Ice” is among the most interesting contributions.


 

 

 

 

 

 

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HANDEL: MESSIAH

ROBERT SHAW

RCA RED SEAL 82876-62317-2

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

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The only “new” complete Messiah to reach me this year is the first CD release of the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra’s 1966 account. Given the harsh string tone, Shaw’s important step toward authenticity is most recommended for its impeccable choral singing – note the estimable lightness of the sopranos on “And He Shall Purify” -- and stellar solo contributions from the late soprano Judith Raskin and classic English tenor Richard Lewis. Raskin is sui generis, her special gifts hushed in their prime by cancer. Lewis delivers a bounty of accents and shading, if not sumptuous tone. The alto is matronly, the bass beautifully voiced but lacking requisite darkness. Not a first choice for the average listener, but a must for collectors.
 

 

 

 

 

 

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2004 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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