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Music Reviews

Classical Music - Part 31 - Music for the Christmas Season - December, 2001


Jason Serinus

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CHRISTMAS WITH CHANTICLEER featuring special guest Dawn Upshaw - TELDEC 8573-85555-2

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Chanticleer, the San Francisco-based male vocal group founded in 1978 by the late Louis Botto, has for many years served as the only full-time professional a cappella ensemble in the U.S. In their fourth Christmas album, the men form a winning blend with the great lyric soprano Dawn Upshaw. The chameleon-like Upshaw remains among the most versatile singers before us. Equally at home in Broadway show tunes, classic and contemporary opera and art song, and world music (a recent collaborative tour with the Kronos Quartet comes to mind), her refreshing purity, unique timbre, and touching sincerity are ideal for sacred music.

Known for their eclectic repertoire, Chanticleer offers everything from traditional Spanish, French, Welsh, Huron and English carols to more contemporary offerings by John Taverner, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Jaako Mäntyjärvi. Hugo Distler's 10-minute chorale "Es ist en Ros entsprugen," excerpted from a larger Christmas work, takes off from the famous melody which Sumi Jo sings on her Christmas album. Gifted Chanticleer music director Joseph Jennings weaves together a 12-minute "Mary and the Baby" medley of four carols, including two from the African-American spiritual and gospel tradition.

Chanticleer's membership has changed radically over the years; only four of the twelve men heard on the group's marvelous 1994 Palestrina recording contribute to this album. Even from last year's Grammy-winning Colors of Love, there have been three personnel changes. The results remain as impeccably tuneful as ever, even if the group's sweet and seductive blend occasionally seems somewhat wimpy on top, lacking desirable punch and weight on lower voices.

Recorded at Northern California's Skywalker Ranch, the disc offers a clean, resonant sound, if not the ultimate in transparency. Fans need not hesitate.

PHIL KLINE: UNSILENT NIGHT - CANTALOUPE CA 21005

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For those who have grown a bit weary of traditional Christmas fare, yet have no desire to throw out the baby with the baptismal water, this disc offers a refreshing alternative.

Since the winter of 1992, rock-influenced art musician Phil Kline and his friends have been "electric caroling" through the streets of Greenwich Village with a parade of boom boxes. [To learn more, or to possibly join them this Christmas, check out www.mindspring.com/~boombox]. The resultant sound sculpture, far more beautiful than you might expect, is here captured in all its ambient glory.

Unsilent Night opens with a tinkling, bell-like array of sounds, sometimes minimalist in their repetition, and positively angelic in impact. A seamless transition into the nine-minute "The Milky Way," in which bells have a more dissonant but no less entrancing effect, is followed by tracks that include sonically altered caroling and Gregorian chant.

You might not expect ethereal sounds from a man who co-founded the art-punk band the Del-Byzanteens, and pens compositions with titles such as "the Garden of Divorce " and "Into the Fire," but Kline's electronic tinkering produces surprisingly reverent results. His music is quite holy in its own way - Satan worshippers will have to turn elsewhere for their pleasure. Unsilent Night warrants switching off the cell phone, turning out the lights, and lying on the floor in total immersion. Highly recommended.

SEVENTEENTH CENTURY CHRISTMAS EVE - SUSANNE RYDÉN & BELL'ARTE SALZBURG - WINTER & WINTER BASIC EDITION 910 078-2

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This attractively packaged CD, distributed by Allegro Imports, offers thirteen beautiful baroque selections that together recount the story of Christmas. Composed in various parts of Germany in the 17th century, the works are performed to authentic perfection by the gifted Swedish soprano Susanne Rydén and baroque violinist Annegret Siedel's fine Bell'Arte Salzburg original instrument ensemble

Beginning with Dietrich Buxtehude's setting of a text from the Gospel according to John, the CD includes vocal and orchestral music by Rosenmüller, Schmelzer, Biber, Schildt, and others. Most of the pieces are engagingly ;yrical; there is little of the knock-me over virtuosic writing that distinguishes much composition from the baroque period. The ecological red and green cardboard packaging - no breakable plastic here -- offers translations, but lacks notes on the performers or ensemble. For the record, Susanne Rydén, who has performed with such early music greats as Christopher Hogwood, Andrew Parrot, Gustav Leonhardt, Eric Ericson, René Jacobs, and Joshua Rifkin, Nicolas McGegan, and Roy Goodman, has a winning, clear soprano voice that she employs with consummate ease and skill. The results, when backed and interspersed with instrumental playing of the first rank, make for a delightful listening experience.

I took this CD to my chiropractor's office, and urged him to play it instead of the bluegrass and Segovia that seem his current faves. Every patient in the office loved it. This may be "serious" classical music, but it has a shine and joy that are positively infectious. The 24-bit recording, recorded in Italy with no processing, is excellent. Highly recommended.

MYSTERIUM: SACRED ARIAS - ANGELA GHEORGHIU - DECCA 289 466 102-2

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Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, in her last recording for Decca before she and her husband Roberto Alagna signed with EMI, offers a mixed bag recital. Some of the selections, all close to the singer's heart, are downright gorgeous; others call for a different, less grandly operatic kind of voice.

Although the disc labels its contents "sacred arias," many of the selections are songs, some of whose sacredness is questionable. Regardless, the four sacred songs which begin the CD, all from the Orthodox Church and penned by 20th century Romanian composers, are the definite highpoint. Introduced by the sound of the toaca, a wooden percussion device that is part of the tradition of the Orthodox Church in Moldavia, these songs are unique, ethereal, and immensely satisfying. The diva, who sings in her native language, is backed by the fine Romanian "Madrigal" National Chamber Choir, conducted by Marin Constantin, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, led by the strikingly handsome Romanian-born Ion Marin.

After 18 minutes of wonderful singing, the soprano offers such familiar selections as "O holy night," Brahms' "Wiegenlied (Lullaby)," Mendelssohn's "Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (On Wings of Song)," Schubert's "Ave Maria," and "Adeste, fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful)". Here, the hint of unmovable metal in the middle of her beautiful voice seems unsuited for the lightness of these works. Listen to Elisabeth Schumann or Victoria de los Angeles sing the Mendelssohn, for example, to discover the charm absent from Gheorghiu's rendition. Similarly, play any number of singers, from Schumann and Lehmann to Janet Baker, to understand what is missing from the Schubert. Nonetheless, the disc has a lot to offer.

JOHN RUTTER - MUSIC FOR CHRISTMAS - POLYPHONY - CITY OF LONDON SINFONIA - STEPHEN LAYTON - HYPERION CDA 67245

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For lighter fare, the English equivalent of those Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops renditions of "Sleigh Ride" and other Christmas favorites from the '60's and '70's, it's hard to beat the music of John Rutter. Whether listening to his original "Shepherd's Pipe Carol" or his arrangement of "Silent Night," there's an irresistibly friendly charm to Rutter's music. Its warm, cozy, friends around the fire feel is perfect background for a holiday get-together, or to cheer you up as you contemplate what all your Xmas lights are going to do to your electric bill.

Rutter's name is known to many audiophiles from the superb Reference Recordings disc of his attractive Requiem. This disc will further endear his name to lovers of good music. The amassed English forces sound wonderful in this well-recorded music: relaxed, comfy, and filled with good cheer.

No more words are needed. Enjoy!

MITTENS FOR CHRISTMAS - KIRKMOUNT - DORIAN DOR-93236

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Alex, Samuel, and Simeon Bigney, the three brothers who comprise the Kirkmount Celtic Ensemble, play a combination of harp, bones, fiddle, cello and bodbran. The resultant folksy blend, equally inviting on Westford Carol, O Holy Night, and Greensleeves Jig, makes for a refreshing 52-minute program.

These brothers' ancestors played a similar style of music in the ancient village of Kirkmount in the hills of Nova Scotia. Now the men, resident musicians at Robert Redford's Sundance resort in Utah, appear on A Prairie Home Companion and in many U.S. venues. Though this disc won't replace the marvelous, better-recorded Dorian folk-oriented disc, A Winter Solstice with Helicon (DOR-90276), it brings much pleasure.

CHRISTMAS AT TRINITY - NAXOS 8.555886

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If it's traditional carols you're looking for, be it "Silent Night" or "Hark the Angels Sing," this disc may fit the bill. It also deserves your support. In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Naxos of America and New York City's historic Trinity Church, Wall Street have chosen to donate all proceeds from the sale of their "Christmas at Trinity" CD to the United Way September 11th Disaster Relief Fund. Released on October 16th, the disc features the professional choir of Trinity Church, led by Owen Burdick, in a program of traditional Christmas Carols. The profits from the sale will amount to $2.75 per disc for an estimated total donation of $15,000-25,000.

Director Owen Burdick has intentionally developed a distinctly American sound for his choir. No stuffy English accents or pompous circumstances here. While this is quite admirable, one wishes the results sounded a little less careful and self-conscious. Maybe it's because of the historical circumstances associated with the recording. Located in the heart of New York's financial district, Trinity Church was founded in 1697. Its St. Paul's Chapel served as the site of the new world premiere of Handel's Messiah and the Christmas hymn "Silent Night", and was where George Washington worshipped after his inauguration in 1784. Closer to the present day, church and chapel stand just a few hundred feet from the site of the former World Trade Towers. Miraculously, both buildings suffered only minor damage and the parish staff inside the church and nearby offices at the time of the attacks, escaped safely after the collapse of the towers.

A VENETIAN CHRISTMAS - GABRIELI CONSORT & PLAYERS - PAUL MCCREESH - ARCHIV 289 471 333-2

Paul McCreesh and his excellent forces gives us another of their historical re-creations, this time the "First Mass of Christmas as it may have been celebrated at Venice's St. Marks in the late 16th century." Choir, authentic instruments, and male soloists perform a well-recorded sampling of vocal and instrumental works by Cipriano de Rore and Giovanni Gabrielli. All well and good. The music, however, is separated by chants and other parts of the Mass that will appeal only to those who are into the religious aspects of the holiday. For the rest, programming one's remote control will make for rewarding listening.



 - Jason Serinus -

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© Copyright 2001 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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