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No. 59 - December, 2006

Jason Victor Serinus


Holiday Music - Part II

Behold, a critic shall conceive, and bear his thoughts. Of the 48 season-related CDs and DVDs that arrived at Casa Bellecci-Serinus this year – please, Oh Lord, no more! – here's my take on the best of the rest.

New Orleans Christmas (Putamayo PUT 256-2)

 

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Here's a most enjoyable collection of New Orleans jazz classics that put a smiling face on the holiday season. No Katrina, no Bush, no racism; the New Birth Brass Band swings through "Santa's Second Line" as though the only thing that will ever be swept away is depression. Only a misogynist grinch would hold back as Ingrid Lucia purrs the pants off "Zat You, Santa Claus?"

 

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Stacy Sullivan: Cold Enough to Snow (LML Music LML CD-189)

 

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If your taste turns to female vocalists with a distinct cabaret/pop tinge, you will echo Stephen Schwartz's question, "Why isn't Stacy Sullivan already famous?" In a program that ranges from "Away in the Manger" to Joni Mitchell's "River," Sullivan's easy voice and guitar will suit many to a T. Don't expect to travel to the emotional depths on this one.

 

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Russ Lorenson: What I Want for Christmas (LML Music LML CD-211)

 

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This time it's a male cabaret singer, smiling his way through the holidays with some swinging arrangements and the occasional push of the vibrato to indicate emotion. From "Christmas in San Francisco" to a medley that includes songs by Irving Berlin and Julie Styne, you'll find no angst here. Add a glass of wine, lots of tinsel, and close the shutters to anything but the Christmas lights. As long as you don't demand a truly distinctive voice or treatment, you'll do just fine.

 

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Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir: A New Joy - Orthodox Christmas (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807410)

 

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From the mystic-sounding bells of Tallinn's St. Alexander Cathedral to the opening hymn "Our Father," we sense something special. Famed choir director Paul Hillier directs the sonorous voices of Estonia's famed choir in a program that includes reverent, often exalted music by the great Arvo Pärt, Tchaikovsky, and others. The singing is like healing balm, and the remarkably transparent high-resolution recording, available as an optional multi-channel SACD, captures the spacious acoustic of Estonia's Tallinn Methodist Church to perfection.

 

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Kids Love Christmas (Sanctuary Classics CD RSN 3078)

 

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All thumbs up to 22 joyous tracks from various English choirs, orchestras, and brass bands. Carl Davis and the Hallé provide a delightful alternative to the Boston Pops' classic take on Anderson's "Sleigh Ride." The disc even includes some occasionally ponderous extracts from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. Innocence everywhere abounds.

 

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Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg & Friends: Merry – A Holiday Journey (NSS Music)

 

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Iconoclastic violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg adds a distinctive twang to her violin as she occasionally teams with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott; Clarice, Sergio and Odair Assad; Judy Blazer; the St. Peter's Adult Choir; and a host of others to share a very personal window on Christmas. Thanks to Salerno-Sonnenberg's versatility, stylistic contrasts abound, from the hot to the holy (not necessarily exclusive, thank God). Not everything is perfectly polished, but it's all refreshingly real.

 

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Vivaldi: Gloria in D major • J.S. Bach: Magnificat in D major • The Sixteen; The Symphony of Harmony & Invention, Harry Christophers (CORO COR16042)

 

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One of England's most well known early music vocal ensembles, The Sixteen, together with their own period instrument orchestra, have been reissuing all their historic recordings on their own label CORO. Many, such as this 1991 CD of justly famed works by Vivaldi and Bach, broke new ground in their time. While these pieces are not Christmas per se, their enduring beauty makes them a perfect fit for your stocking.

 

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Karsten Troyke: Jidische Vergessene Lieder (Raumer Records RR12097)

 

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Troyke, a champion of Jewish music, has assembled a wonderful collection of Yiddish songs, many of which were previously unknown and unrecorded. Troyke learned the songs from Sara Bialas-Tenenberg, who at age 13 was incarcerated in the Treblinka concentration camp. Somehow she survived, carrying within her memories of songs she learned during WWII and in the years following her liberation. The songs, many laden with suffering and pain, remind us of the consequences of the religious insanity that again threatens world stability. I was going to say "world peace," but I don't think so. That has yet to come.

 

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A Sacred Christmas (Jade 6201)

 

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From a record company based in Milan comes an assortment of lovely Christmas performances sung by Coro Exaude de la Habana, The Youth Choir of Saint-Francois de Versailles, Schola of the Monks of Montserrat, and other groups from Spain, France, and Argentina. The conclusion, a clueless "vibrant Gospel style" version of "Silent Night" sung by French forces, only adds to the charm. Smilingly recommended.

 

 

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Broadway Cares: Home for the Holidays (Centaur Entertainment CEN 30047-2)

 

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If the fact that all the profits from this album are donated to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is not sufficient cause to purchase, how about performances by Lisa Minnelli, Sam Harris, Adam Pascal, Lea DeLaria, Billy Porter, Audra McDonald, and 14 other pros? Admittedly, some of the tracks sound more Broadway glitz than Xmas holy, but there's lots of good stuff to enjoy.

 

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Christmastime is Here • Erich Kunzel (Telarc CD-80538)

 

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Kunzel's agreeable Christmas collection spices up rather formulaic, well-recorded medleys and seasonal songs (including "Christmastime is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas) by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, the School of Creative and Performing Arts Children's Choir, and the Indiana University Singing Hoosiers (wowie zowie!) with tracks by the fabulous Tony DeSare, deservedly feted jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton, Ann Hampton Callaway, John Pizzarelli, and (speaking of incongruity) The King's Singers.

 

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Christmas in Santa Fe: Santa Fe Desert Chorale (Clarion CLR926CD)

 

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Recorded in live concert at Santa Fe's Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, the 20-member chorale, under the direction of Linda Mack, do a superb job singing seasonal music (all but the token Jewish prayer in English) written and arranged by Rutter, Britten, Mechem, Conrad Susa, and others. With some selections accompanied by harpist Rosalind Simpson, choral enthusiasts and lovers of the season need not hesitate.

 

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Lighten Our Darkness: Music for the Close of Day (Collegium COLCD 131)

 

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Under the direction of the renowned John Rutter, The Cambridge Singers perform 18 a cappella choral motets, mainly from the Renaissance, written to accompany evening worship services in Catholic monastic and collegiate communities. That three copies of this CD arrived on my doorstep serves as a sign that, even though this gorgeous music isn't Christmas per se, its serene beauty, superbly captured in the resonant Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral, will swathe you in loveliness and grace. Highly recommended.

 

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Merry Christmas (soundtrack –Virgin Classics 094634197823)

 

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I missed this film, set on the battlefield on Christmas eve, 1914, but the five tracks featuring high soprano Natalie Dessay and tenor heartthrob Rolando Villazon – especially the curious duet on a very inauthentic "Bist du bei mir" (once attributed to J.S. Bach) – will tempt opera lovers aplenty.

 

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John Fluker: J is for Joy (Retribution Records RR002)

 

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Contemporary gospel vocalist, keyboardist, and arranged Fluker, who has served as Gladys Knight's musical director, offers a welcome break from the usual holiday fare with 10 contemporary arrangements (only 41 minutes worth) of Christmas hymns and carols. Reflecting the influence of r&b, jazz, gospel, jazz, and contemporary cool, six of the tracks feature Fluker's winning voice, which makes the best case possible for his sweet, synthesized variations on the pop familiar.

 

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Handel: Messiah (1751 version) • Academy of Ancient Music, Choir of New College Oxford, Edward Higginbottom (Naxos 8.570131)

 

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Behold, the first modern recording of Handel's 1751 version of Messiah, which uses fetching boy trebles instead of sopranos for the top line of choruses and most soprano arias (save for Rejoice, greatly, which Handel allocated to his tenor soloist). Both tenor Toby Spence and bass Eamonn Dougan are former clerks of New College Choir, adding extra authenticity if not the most refulgent tone. Instead of Handel's chosen castrato, Guadagni, we have countertenor Iestyn Davies, who has one of the finer countertenor voices I've heard. The three boy treble soloists (ages 11, 12, and 13) are heavenly; the two who introduce the chorus, Glory to God in the Highest, sing like angels.

 

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Handel: Messiah (1750 version) • The Choir of Clare College, Freiburger Barockorchester, René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi HMC 801928.29)

 

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In Handel's first revision of his masterpiece, which he conducted seven years after its disastrous London premiere, the emphasis is on vocal virtuosity and spiritual solidity. From Jacobs' orchestra (captured in high-resolution multi-channel SACD for those with the equipment to reproduce it) we hear considerable weight, from superb tenor Kobie van Rensburg greater urgency and authority than from Higginbottom's lighter but nonetheless fetching forces. Ryland Davies' bass instrument is gonad-shaking; Patricia Bardon's traditional English plumy rich mezzo blessed with gratifying flexibility; Kerstin Avemo's lighter soprano quite fine if not as radiantly pure as one might wish; and Lawrence Zazzo's countertenor so exquisitely refined in placement and presentation as to defy simple description. How wonderfully the chorus sings "and his burden is light." I thought I was Messiahed-out until I started playing this version.

 

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The Young Messiah: Messiah XXI (DTS DVD 7569)

 

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Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. I'd never suggest that authentic Handelian forces lack soul, but once you hear Gladys Knight sing Handel's music with surprising classical restraint, then indulge yourself in the likes of Jeffrey Osborne, Roger Daltrey, Chaka Khan, and The Visual Ministry Gospel Choir and Irish Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus, ye shall be purified. This Messiah does not look down; it simply moves us forward in time. Narrator Aiden Quinn adds a generous helping of profundity, and conductor Frank McNamara has a ball. As will you.

 

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Christmas with José Carreras: 1990 (Arthaus Musik DVD 101 407)

 

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Alas, not even newfound fame as one of The Three Tenors could mask how much vocal erosion the 44-year old Carrerras had already suffered by forcing his essentially lyric instrument to encompass heavy operatic roles. Best when singing lightly, albeit with little of his former sweetness, he cannot match the magnificence of the setting, the Jesuit Church of Lucerne. Catch his "White Christmas" if you dare; snow was never so dramatic.

 

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2006 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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