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Holiday Music Reviews
 

No. 55 - December, 2005

Jason Victor Serinus

 

THE PAUL WINTER CONSORT & FRIENDS: SILVER SOLSTICE * LIVING MUSIC LMUS 0040

 

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Paul Winter's 25th annual Winter Solstice Celebration in New York's monumental Cathedral of St. John's the Divine proves a beautifully recorded, multi-cultural fete. It may have been rather nippy in the largest cathedral in the world, but you'd never know it from the glowing warmth of Winter's soprano sax and the spirited sounds of his compatriots. Grateful Dead drummer Micket Hart, Brazilian diva Luciana Souza, cellist Eugene Friesen, and the Dimitri Pokrovsky Ensemble are among the many artists who send their voices to the heavens in celebration and prayer for the return of the Light. This set of two audio CDs and bonus DVD belongs in your stocking.

 

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LUTOSLAWSKI: TWENTY POLISH CHRISTMAS CAROLS * NAXOS 8.555994

 

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One of our great 20th century masters, composer Witold Lutoslawski's 1946 collection of 19th century Polish texts and melodies abounds in beautiful, unfamiliar carols. Instead of harsh tonalities, the sweet voices of the Polish Radio Chorus, Kracw and the Polish National Radio Symphony under Antoni Wit create a heartfelt, often joyous, melodic celebration. Exceptional soprano and alto soloists, a fine recording, and the very early Lacrimosa and far more modern Five Songs of 1957 deliver extra rewards.

 

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MASQUES: NOL BAROQUE * ANALEKTA AN 2 9908

 

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Many of the healthy-looking young members of Masques, a Montreal-based early music ensemble, regularly perform in the finest early music ensembles on both sides of the Atlantic. Their lovely program of Charpentier's Noels on instruments from the groups, Scarlatti's Bethlehem Cantata for soprano, Schiassi's Concerto for strings and continuo in D major, and Delalande's Christmas Symphony is graced by the fetching soprano of Northern California native Catherine Webster (who also specializes in music by Adams, Riley and other contemporaries). I'm not sure why Ireland's traditional "Christmas Day is come!" was stuck between music by baroque masters, but Webster's fetching sweetness invites smiles.

 

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LUCIANO PAVAROTTI: O HOLY NIGHT * DECCA B0005301-02

 

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Derived in large part from his 1976 outing with conductor Kurt Herbert Adler, tenor Pavarotti lends his glistening voice and well-known idiosyncrasies to a classic Christmas collection that includes "O Holy Night" and "Ave Marias" from Schubert and Bach-Gounod. Why Gluck's "Che faro senza Euridice?" is included only capitalism can explain, but the other tracks, including two from 1997 that feature the mousiest sounding children's choir in digital memory, will make fans squeal.

 

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HANDEL: MESSIAH * AMERICAN BACH SOLOISTS/JEFFREY THOMAS * DELOS DE 3360

 

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HANDEL: MESSIAH * CONCENTUS MUSICUS WIEN/NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT * DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI SACD 2CD 82876-72039-2

 

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This year's Messiahs, both recorded live last December, pit the Bay Area's superb American Bach Soloists (with authentic instruments played by top-notch artists, fine soloists, and a small, carefully enunciating chorus) against early music pioneer Nikolaus Harnoncourt's crack ensemble and star soloists. Thomas chooses Handel's rarely heard, very first autograph score of 1741, which Handel revised on eight subsequent occasions, while Harnoncourt opts for a hodge-podge version incorporating many of the revisions (the latest from 1761) that we're accustomed to hearing. In "Rejoice, greatly, O daughter of Zion," for example, occasionally shaky soprano Arianna Zuckerman expresses jubilation quite differently than does the gifted Christine Schfer.

Besides different notes and embellishments, with Thomas' soloists especially adept at improvisation, these versions are miles apart. Harnoncourt's forces sound bigger, far more resonant and "wet," yet beautifully focused; Thomas opts for intimacy, a welcome antidote to countless overblown accounts of the 20th century, but is sabotaged by a dry acoustic. Harnoncourt's bass Gerald Finley, recently the star of John Adams' Doctor Atomic, is not the most terrifying on record, but he certainly makes a bigger shake than Thomas' beautifully endowed William Sharp. One must also choose between Harnoncourt's rich alto Anna Larsson and Thomas' light countertenor Daniel Taylor, or (for example) a "For unto us a child is born" chorus that takes a languid extra 69 seconds for Harnoncourt to traverse. Those who make sonics a priority (especially if they have Super Audio Compact Disc players) will choose Harnoncourt. For those who treasure Messiah, Thomas' version is revelatory.

 

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DANA CUNNINGHAM: SILENT NIGHT * ROCKINGECHOMUSIC RM-91321

 

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Love is what one feels when listening to New Hampshire-based pianist Dana Cunningham's play fresh arrangements of eleven familiar carols. The indie artist (danacunningham.com) approaches each piece with singular reverence, offering the same respect one might give to a beloved old friend. Even "Joy to the World" elicits a peaceful, subdued response perfect for fireside, eggnog, and cozying up.

 

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ANITA BAKER: CHRISTMAS FANTASY * BLUE NOTE 0946 3 32173 2 4

 

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If you ever thought Christmas was dreary, listen to Anita Baker. Fabulous spirit, swinging voice, and imagination galore: this woman has it all. Girl, where have you been when we've really needed you? Thanks to her great collaborators -- George Duke and Joe Sample (piano), Ricky Lawson (drums), Barry Eastmond (Rhodes and keyboards), Larry Carlton (guitar), Nathan East (bass), and the Yellowjackets Ms. Baker gives us one great soul-filled disc.
 

 

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CANTUS: COMFORT AND JOY VOLUME TWO * CANTUS RECORDINGS CTS-1205

 

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A companion to 2004's Volume One, this superbly recorded, audiophile quality Christmas disc recorded by John Atkinson the drum will test any system's ability to reproduce clear, resonant low bass, and the air and staging are first rate -- features Minneapolis' professional male vocal ensemble Cantus. Their sound is quite different from America's other professional male ensemble, Chanticleer. Eschewing high voiced, sweet male altos and sopranos, Cantus offers hearty, full voiced males with a tendency to lather on sentiment.

The singing is sincere, but lacks subtlety. Cantus is most successful with traditional fare. When they try to swing to Erick Lichte's arrangement of "Deck the Halls" or Babatunde Olatunji's "Beteleheme," they sound like they need an infusion of joy and a good massage. I concur with my spouse's sentiment: "They don't quite have the feel, do they?"

 

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THE BOSTON CAMERATA: A MEDITERRANEAN CHRISTMAS * WARNER CLASSICS 2564 62560-2

 

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Subtitled "Songs of celebration from Spain, Provence, Italy & the Middle East, 1200-1900," this excellently recorded collaboration between Joel Cohen's Boston Camerata and Karim Nagi's Sharq Arabic Music Ensemble brims over with color and atmospheric warmth. The songs are often simple, the instrumentation sparse. Thanks to original instruments and a spacious acoustic, it's easy to imagine oneself within a medieval courtyard or cloister.

 

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VARIOUS: A CHRISTMAS NATIVITY * DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON B0005389-02

 

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DG pulls out some of its big vocal guns Price, Sutherland, Tebaldi, Pavarotti, Carrerras, Te Kanawa, Terfel surrounding them with the Trapp Family Singers, John Alldis Choir, Musica Sacra etc. singing Christmas favorites. If you've never heard La Stupenda sing "O Holy Night," fasten your seatbelts! As long as you can accept that divas and divos are not masters of simplicity, you can't go wrong with this program.

 

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MARILYN HORNE & THE MORMON TABERNACLE PROGRAM: O HOLY NIGHT * SONY CLASSICAL SK 95103

 

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Most recorded, this re-release does not flatter one of the great singers of the 20th century. Sounding much too heavy for much of the material, Horne seems determined to drown out the entire Mormon assemblage. Orchestral balances are way off. Remember Horne for Rossini, not this.

 

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HARLAP, ALGAZI, BARDANASHVILI, MILHAUD, KADOSA: ON EARTH PEACE, GOOD WILL TOWARDS MEN * HUNGAROTON CLASSIC HCD 32272

 

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Soprano Maria Teresa Uribe honors her Jewish roots by uttering "a cry. A silent cry. It was enough. Let peace be among people." Consisting mostly of world premiere recordings, the CD communicates the suffering of the holocaust, as well as the sacredness, simplicity, and joy of Jewish life. Uribe's voice is sometimes harsh, heavy and shaky seemingly past its prime but her performances are profound. Thanks to English translations, Maria Teresa Uribe gives us an invaluable gift.

 

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VARIOUS: BLUES, BLUES CHRISTMAS 1925-1955 * DOCUMENT RECORDS DOCD-32-20-9

 

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How these 44 classic American recordings of blues, jazz, boogie-woogie and gospel from Bessie Smith, Sonny Boy Williamson, Leadbelly, and a host of others ended up on two much too brightly remastered CDs from Israel is anyone's guess. At low volume, this amply notated volume offers priceless songs and sermons from America's soul-filled and sinning past. Your ears will ring from the worst of the transfers, but your soul will smile. Don't miss Julia Lee and her Boy Friends' fabulous blues lament to her lyin' lover's Christmas Spirit.

 

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CHOIR OF KING'S COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE * ON CHRISTMAS DAY: NEW CAROLS FROM KING'S * EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 5807 0 2

 

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CHOIR OF KING'S COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE: ESSENTIAL CAROLS: THE VERY BEST OF KING'S COLLEGE CHOIR, CAMBRIDGE * DECCA B0005302-02

 

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Here are two "bests" from England's historic choir of men and boys. From EMI comes two CDs containing the 20th and 21st century carols that choir director Stephen Cleobury has commissioned yearly since 1982 for the choir's Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The 22 composers form a virtual who's who of living greats, with Arvo Prt, Jonathan Harvey, Robin Holloway, John Rutter, Peter Maxwell Davies, Peter Sculthorpe, James MacMillan, Thomas Ads, Nicholas Maw, and Stephen Paulus among the most familiar. All but one are still alive, the youngest being the gay Thomas Ads, now 44. Those wishing a break from traditional fare need look no farther.

Decca brings us two CDs of familiar carols, some with organ accompaniment recorded 1959-1965. Intense church echo necessitates less than snappy tempos, but the charm of the performances amply compensates.

 

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THE BAROQUE CHRISTMAS ALBUM * ARCHIV B0005271-02

 

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A holiday tour of baroque masters from four of Early Music's most renowned conductors. John Eliot Gardiner offers the opening chorus from Bach's Christmas Cantata BWV 62, Trevor Pinnock proffers Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Nols sur les instruments and some divine Schtz, Paul McCreesh gives us three works by Gabrieli and four by Praetorius, and Marc Minkowski supplies extracts of Charpentier. Lovely stuff.

 

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NANCY LAMOTT: JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS * MIDDOR MUSIC MMCD004

 

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Had she not succumbed to uterine cancer in 1995 at the age of 43, Nancy LaMott would still be celebrated as one of our finest cabaret artists. Her 1994 Christmas album, one of seven discs she left us, keeps me hitting "repeat." Beginning with Wilha Hutson/Alfred Burt's "Some Children See Him," a reminder that Jesus was every color and no color, the disc mixes two medleys of traditional tunes with songs by Mel Torme, Frank Loesser, Alex Wilder and other contemporaries. LaMott's clear, minimally adorned delivery is distinguished by honesty and charm, the simplicity of arrangements and singing the epitome of sophistication. No over-the-top, plastic excess here; you can feel LaMott's wonderful heart and spirit in every beautiful, exceptionally free note.
 

 

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ANONYMOUS 4 * NOL: CAROLS & CHANTS FOR CHRISTMAS * HARMONIA MUNDI HMX 2907411.14

 

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This four-disc collection presents all the Christmas CDs recorded by this prized American a cappella women's quartet. On Yoolis Night's medieval carols and motets rightly topped the 1993 Billboard charts and put Anonymous 4 on the map. Then came A Star in the East: Medieval Hungarian Christmas Music, Legends of St. Nicholas; and, in 2003, Wolcum Yule's Celtic and British carols and songs. The sacred aura of these women's beautiful voices and their impeccably annotated liner notes compensate for a sameness of delivery perhaps meant to duplicate the sound of nuns in a medieval cloister.
 

 

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RENEE FLEMING: SACRED SONGS * DECCA B0005193-02

 

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Diva Fleming delivers a beautifully voiced, carefully sung program that begins with one of the smoothest, creamiest Bach/Gounod "Ave Marias" on record. It's miles away from her closing "Amazing Grace," with its singular, non-operatic phrasing superbly supported by Mark O'Connor's violin obbligato. Hers in not the typical voice one would expect in Handel's "Rejoice greatly" from Messiah; it's far too opulent, lacking pinpointed brightness, with an interpretation that at one point sounds like Violetta swooning. (She's also a far too grown up little girl in her lullaby from Humperdinck's Hansel & Gretel duet with Susan Graham, and far too fussy with Reger's Maria Wiegenlied. (Elisabeth Schumann, where are you when we so need your charming simplicity)?. But taken as a whole, this is a most commendable album. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Andreas Delfs does a fine job.

 

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SNAILDARTHA: THE STORY OF JERRY THE CHRISTMAS SNAIL A SOUL JAZZ EXTRAVAGANZA * INNOVA 205

 

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Initial interest in Matt Fugate & Chris Strouth's charming tale of a Christmas snail whose journey parallels that of the Buddha's, and my special pleasure at Fugate's deadpan delivery, was destroyed by unimaginative, unvaried music that can never pass as soulful jazz. By the fourth dreadful instrumental interlude, I could not continue listening. What a shame.

 

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BRYN TERFEL: SIMPLE GIFTS * DECCA B0004772-02

 

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Bryn Terfel, simple? You've got to be kidding. The gorgeously voiced bass-baritone simply doesn't know how to sing simply. If you like it laid on thick, with Barry Wordsworth and the London Symphony Orchestra further souping it up, certainly. Otherwise, stick to Bryn as a magnificent Falstaff, and beware of insufferable renditions of "Send in the Clowns" and other selections which are best entrusted to a less over-the-top artist.

 

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BRAVE OLD WORLD: SONGS OF THE LODZ GHETTO (DUS GEZANG FIN GETO LODZH) * WINTER & WINTER 910 104-2

 

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A musical performance piece by the contemporary Jewish ensemble Brave Old World, recorded during the concert series "Musiques de Nuit invite Winter & Winter," Bordeaux, October 2004, this wonderfully annotated program reflects on the relationship between the Jewish music created 1940-1944 in the Nazi ghetto of Lodz, Poland and the work of the ensemble. Some of the songs are quite joy-filled. An invaluable, beautifully produced program.

 

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ORIGINAL MASTERS: MERRY CHRISTMAS * DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON B0005068-02

 

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Decca taps its vast catalogue of original masters from the 1950s and later, some recorded in stereo, for two CDs of performances by Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Choir, the great Fritz Wunderlich and Hermann Prey richly and unforgettably dueting in Praetorius' "In dulci jubilo," The Trapp Family Singers celebrating their freedom from Nazidom, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Jrg Demus in 1970, organist Helmut Walcha, etc. You'll find little early music authenticity, but lots of big-scaled, dated renditions. F-D sings a previously unreleased French version of "O Holy Night" as though he were Gounod's Faust, shorn of high notes.

 

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SAVAE * CHRISTMAS MUSIC OF COLONIAL LATIN AMERICA * WORLD LIBRARY PUBLICATIONS WLP 002360

 

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Savae, the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble, debuted in December of 1989 with a program of colonial Latin American Christmas music. Since then, their performances of music from Latin America have made the Billboard charts and become a favorite on National Public Radio. As a seven-person ensemble, in which each singer also plays multiple instruments (including some wonderfully deep percussion), their small, intimate and sometimes nave sound is abetted by a quiet, resonant acoustic. Savae's lovely performances evidence an appropriate spiritual naivete, eschewing ultimate swing and accent for smoothness. What's not to like?

 

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CHARLES DICKENS: A CHRISTMAS CAROL * MR. PICKWICK'S CHRISTMAS * DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5742

 

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How classic can you get than dramatizations of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, released in 1941 with narration by Ronald Coleman and musical direction by Victor Young, and Mr. Pickwick's Christmas from 1944, featured the voice of Charles Laughton and delightful music composed and conducted by Hanns Eisler? These forces knew exactly how to hold the interest of an invisible radio audience without the use of visuals. As a result, we too are engaged, enchanted, and bemused, especially by Coleman's period Hollywood accent. Remastered in 24-bit, 96 kHz sound, these mono renditions are perfect gifts for grandparents, little ones, and everyone in between.

 

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JESSYE NORMAN AT CHRISTMAS * PHILIPS DVD 074 3104

 

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Two televised Christmas programs from one of our creamiest sopranos cum mezzo-sopranos: Jessye Norman at Notre-Dame (1990), with Lawrence Foster directing the Orchestre de l'Opera de Lyon and the Choeur Regional Vittoria d'Ile de France, and Jessye Norman at Ely Cathedral (1988), with the American Boychoir, Ely Cathedral Choristers, Vocal Arts Chorus, and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Robert De Cormier. All tracks on the latter are composed and arranged by Donald Fraser.

The sound may be 5.1, but it's also heavily compressed. As a result, Norman sounds characteristically shallow in her low range without offering enough of her glorious booming top as adequate compensation. She also tends to sing lower in 1990 than in 1988. Bruce Saylor's orchestral arrangement of Brahms' great Geistliches Wiegenlied soups up a great work best left undisturbed (although Norman's soft singing at the end is quite beautiful). But, then ago, musical purity was never the motivation behind these specials, especially in the rendition of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" where Norman's African-American spirit is nipped in the bud by the French chorus.

Ely Cathedral is the worst of the lot. Some of Donald Fraser's arrangements are downright abominations, including a bombastic "O Holy Night" that lacks only for a cannon to blast it even further into excess. Please give us nonymous 4 singing "The Holly and the Ivy" instead of this version, with boys choir in the background and a slow, soppy second verse. As compensation, Norman is in fine voice. Even Hollywood production values cannot completely destroy her Christmas spirit.

 

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PETER KATER: AIR * REAL MUSIC RM4005

 

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If you're seeking music that can invoke the warmth of holiday season without specific religious implications, check out Air, which joins Earth, Fire, and Water to comprise Grammy-nominated pianist Peter Kater's Elements Series. The first track, "Wings of Sound," offers over 20 minutes of extended bliss, an easy, somewhat repetitive flow ideal for relaxing by the fire. "Flying Dreams" is a spacier excursion, "All Souls" (with its organ-like conclusion) and "Heaven's Gate" returning to the planetary reverie of the opening track. Richard Hardy's bamboo and silver flutes and Grammy-nominated Paul McCandless' penny whistles, oboe, clarinet and soprano sax join Kater's piano, synthesizer and vocals, producing a disc that is more about being than thinking about same.

 

- Jason Victor Serinus -

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