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No. 59 - December, 2006

Jason Victor Serinus


Holiday Music - Part I

Perhaps due to attempts by the Christian right to dominate the landscape, more recordings of seasonal fare have come my way in 2006 than in the past seven years. Merrily skipping through the pile uncovers some choice stuffing for your stocking.

Simply Christmas – Home for the Holidays (Sony Classical 82876-88581-2)

 

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5

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Sonics

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Hats off to this assortment of delightful recordings set down between 1989 and 1997. The Boston Brass skillfully hold back to deliver an appropriately mellow rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy," and the fabulous clarinetist Richard Stoltzman swings his way through the snow on four selections in the company of acoustic bassist Eddie Gomez, harpist Emily Mitchell, and others. Ayako Shinozaki's harp sounds a bit too literal and closely recorded for my taste, but the London Festival Orchestra's sonority more than compensates. Throw in Michala Petri's joyful recorder, James Galway fluting away on Handel's Pifa, and you have an ideal disc to put you in the holiday spirit.

 

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The Stan Kenton Christmas Carols: Boston Brass and the Brass All-Stars Band (Summit Records DCD 464)

 

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5

Performance

*

Sonics

*

Unconventional jazz arrangements from Stan Kenton and Ralph Carmichael featuring, instead of the usual saxophones, French horns amongst a complement of brass instruments. The Boston Brass quintet, including many current and former members of Canadian Brass and Empire Brass, are quite a sonorous lot. So too are the new arrangements by J.D. Shaw and Sam Pilafian. Trust me, Greensleeves will never be the same. If you can forget classic reverence and ditch sanctimonious piety, this retake on Kenton's admittedly reluctant undertaking of 1961 may strike the right chord. It won't be a hushed one, that's for sure.

 

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The Sixteen: A Traditional Christmas Carol Collection (Coro COR 16043)

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

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Famed conductor Harry Christopher's English choir of 16, at times accompanied by organ, lute, and/or guitar, provides expert renditions of familiar tunes with traditional English words and harmonies. The repackaged 1991 performance would have sounded richer had it either been recorded in analog sound, or with today's advanced digital technology. Still, if it's a boom box or iPod you're using, this lovely, unpretentious collection will do just fine.

 

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Andy Statman: Awakening from Above (Shefa Records Horn 3002)

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

*

Andy Statman is an inspired clarinetist whose ecstatic improvisations on Chasidic themes express the mystical nature of Judaism. Sometimes solo, sometimes with the spare accompaniment of Jim Whitney's double bass and Larry Eagle's drums and percussion, Andy's clarinet celebrates the Divine through wild, oft unbridled flights and leaps into the unknown. Statman's magic can seize you unexpected, inducing altered states in those willing to surrender.

 

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Swing Time Christmas (NTI CD 7005)

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

*

Classic, well-remastered swing and r&b takes on the holidays by black artists, recorded between 1947 and 1953. Artists include Big Joe Turner, Mabel Scott (her "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" was #12 on the R&B charts in 1948), Dexter Gordon, Charles Brown, and others. What's not to like?

 

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Mychael Danna: The Nativity Story (New Line Records-available Dec. 1)

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

*

Judging from the score for the forthcoming full-length film, The Nativity Story, the saga of Mary and Joseph's life as they traveled to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus was accompanied by substantial bombast. Hearing European instruments from the Middle Ages and Renaissance amidst the flourishes is lovely, but what the lambs in the manger would do with so much Hollywood excess is open to question. I prefer to graze in gentler, less artificial environs.

 

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Susan Egan: Winter Tracks (LML Music)

 

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5

Performance

*

Sonics

*

Complete with Christopher McGovern's "The Turkey and the Stuffing," the first seasonal song I've heard to bask in brand recognition, Susan Egan lends her fetchingly sweet, teasing voice to an enjoyable collection of mostly contemporary Christmas tunes plus the token Jewish prayer. A fine disc for the start of a winter's evening with those you love.

 

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Grex Vocalis: Magnum Mysterium (2L26 SACD)

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

*

Captured in optional multi-channel 5.1 surround sound, this beautifully recorded high-resolution disc presents mesmerizing Norwegian, English, and Latin language performances of music and arrangements by Lauridsen, Darke, Victoria, Palestrina, Grieg, Palestrina, and anonymous Norwegians of centuries past. The warm acoustic of Oslo's Uranienborg Church helps send these renditions straight to the heart. Multi-thumbs up!

 

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Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Messe & Te Deum À Huit Voix • Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet (Glossa GCDSA 921161)

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

*

Okay, it wasn't written for Christmas, but I can't help praising these wonderful performances of Charpentier's heavenly music. Recorded in optional 5-channel, high-resolution surround in Paris' Notre Dame du Liban, Niquet's celebrated ensemble offers 80-minutes of sacred bliss.

 

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The Orlando Consort: Medieval Christmas (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907418)

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

*

The award-winning vocal consort, here augmented by bass Robert MacDonald, sings Christmas music from the secular celebrations and liturgy of medieval England, France, and the Low Countries. Organized into groupings such as "Prophecy," "New Year's Day," and "The Carol," the performances serve double duty by providing insight into medieval Europe's mentality and mindset. Starting with the 11th century's earliest noted polyphony, and extending through two short works by noted 15th century composer Antoine Brumel, this beautiful program is self-recommending.

 

 

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Eton College Chapel Choir: Christmas Music from Eton College (Sanctuary Classics RSN 3076)

 

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5

Performance

*

Sonics

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This reissue brings even more pleasure than upon its initial release. The singing by the classic Eton College Chapel Choir of men and boys is exceptional, the clear and resonant acoustic ideally suited for an unusual program that encompasses the 16th century (Ockegem) to the 20th (Britten and Tavener). Highest possible recommendation.

 

 

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Ikon: The Sixteen (Decca B0006825-02)

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

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Harry Christopher's fine a cappella ensemble, complete with some impressive deep basses, provide a newly recorded collection of decidedly uncheery 20th century sacred vocal music from Eastern and Western Europe. The music is profound, often written in minor keys that create a distinctly Christian universe filled with reverence.

 

 

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Jakub Jan Ryba: Czeck Christmas Mass • Christmas Carols (Supraphon DVD SU 7013-9)

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

*

Ryba's simple, folk-like mass of 1796 here receives a sweet rendition by authentic forces. The remainder of the DVD consists of historic Christmas songs, sung while the camera variously focuses on antique mechanical toys and people in traditional garb who gleefully strum and sing as though they haven't a care in the world. Call it charming, call it kitsch, Czech it out.

 

 

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Christmas Break: Relaxing Jazz for the Holidays (Telarc CD-83657)

 

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Performance

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Sonics

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Once you begin to partake of these twelve smoothly flowing tracks by Oscar Peterson, Mel Tormé, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, George Shearing, Ray Brown, Al di Meola, Jeanie Bryson, Kenny Baron, and Jim Hall, you'll know why this excellently recorded compilation is destined to become a classic. Unless you feel less than holy without high drama for the holidays, absolutely do not hesitate.

 

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J. S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio Highlights • Helmuth Rilling (Hänssler Classics 98.271)

 

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Performance

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Sonics

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Who can adequately describe the joy, love, and good spirits that abound in Bach's great (and, in complete form, quite lengthy) Weihnachts-Oratorium? I wouldn't be without several other competing versions, but Rilling, soloists, and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart do a fine job sharing music that uplifts the spirit with the wonders of non-stop melodic invention.

 

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Boris Karloff: Prokofieff's Peter and the Wolf (Vanguard Classics ATM CD 1803)

 

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5

Performance

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Sonics

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At last! The perfect gift for young and old alike, a reissue of Boris Karloff's classic 1957 narration with Mario Rossi conducting the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Instead of sounding as though he's going to suck blood, the 70-year old Karloff (née William Henry Pratt) is infinitely charming. Complete with Prokofieff's justly popular Lieutenant Kijé Suite, this disc is a must!

 

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Ralph Vaughan Williams: Christmas Music (Chandos CHAN 10385)

 

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Performance

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Sonics

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Drama and heart-tugging outpourings that sometimes verge on the saccharine abound in these premiere recordings of famed English composer Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols and On Christmas Night, plus the score to the Nativity Play, The First Nowell. Conductor Richard Hickox, the City of London Sinfonia, and the Joyful Company of Singers (how English!) remind us that Hollywood holdeth not the exclusive rights to sentimentality. Baritone Roderick Williams is especially good at laying it on thick. The lighter spread, please.

 

 

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Advent in Winchester: O Come, Emmanuel • Winchester Cathedral Choir, Andrew Lumsden (Griffin GCCD 4052)

 

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Performance

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Sonics

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Hey. I was born Jewish. How was I to know (until my husband told me) that this disc was intended for four weeks before Christmas? Most important is the première recording of James Macmillan's seven-minute "Laudi alla vergine Maria." The program is generous and varied, the composers ranging from Bach and Byrd to Howells and Stanford.

 

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Anonymous 4: Gloryland (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907400)

 

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Performance

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Sonics

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Time traveling once again, the best-selling American women's vocal quartet Anonymous 4 journeys far from their usual hangout - the medieval monastery - to the, birthplace of America's folks songs, spirituals, revival songs, and gospel hymns. The voices, acoustic, and occasional accompaniment from fiddler Darol Anger and multi-stringer Mike Marshall are irresistibly fetching, and the accents are amusing in a homely sort of way. A great alternative to another disc of well-worn carols.

 

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Christmas with Winchester College Chapel Choir • Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, William Lacey (Naxos DVD 2.110512)

 

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Performance

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Sonics

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This fine, 100-minute surround sound DVD, recorded in Hong Kong before an extremely reverent audience, includes Corelli's Concerto Grosso "Christmas Concerto;" works by Praetorius, Rodney Bennett, Tavener, and Weir; four selections by J.S. Bach; Handel's Concerto Grosso in F plus 32 minutes of excerpts from Messiah; and three traditional carols. No authentic instruments, but enough fine playing and good intentions to carry you through the New Year.

 

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2006 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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