17th Annual Survey of New Christmas CDs
By Gerry Grzyb
In the years I’ve written this column I’ve reviewed nearly 2000 Christmas CDs, so it is increasingly hard to find a disc that knocks me out on first listen. But “All I Want” from Vancouver’s 8-woman vocal group Aliqua is one such disc. The singing is outstanding, the blend is tight, the mostly a cappella arrangements of mostly familiar tunes are astonishingly fresh--this is one for every person who thinks they already have enough Christmas CDs.
“About Christmas” from Germany’s Berlin Voices is equally fine, if not quite as startling. The two men and two women are squarely in the jazz tradition of such groups as The Real Group, the Manhattan Transfer, or (reaching way back) The Hi-Los. Instrumental support that is just right plus creative arrangements won’t leave you feeling you’ve heard it all before.
“The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” from the guys in Christian jazz vocal sextet Take 6 completes this trio of outstanding small-group releases, and it is the only purely a cappella disc. I’ve never heard anything from this group that wasn’t of highest quality and innovation, and this is no exception.
Although released in 2006, Emilie-Claire Barlow’s “Winter Wonderland” tops the list of solo female vocal CDs I first heard this year. A classic effort from an accomplished singer who deserves much more fame, it features songs long favored by jazz vocalists, such as “Santa Baby”, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”, and a fine “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” duet with Marc Jordan. Emilie-Claire’s voice is simply one of the easiest on the ears I’ve heard.
Minnesotan Erin Bode shares a bit of the “little girl” quality in her voice with Emilie-Claire and her “A Cold December Night” is also not new this year. But it is considerably more folk than jazz, even while being just as enjoyable. Favorite cuts include a sweet “A Cradle in Bethlehem”, an interesting take on “The Coventry Carol”, and a surprisingly effective jazz-harmonies version of Peter Warlock’s moody “Bethlehem Down.”
The tray card of Jaimee Paul’s “Christmas Time Is Here” says it is “similar to Diana Krall, Norah Jones, and Madeleine Peyroux.” That’s quite a claim, but Jaimee really does have a great voice and a fine way with the words. She also benefits from backing ranging from combo to big band, with musicians including Green Hill label mates such as Beegie Adair and Jack Jezzro who arefeatured on the “Christmas Jazz” CD noted later.
“And To All A Good Night” from vocalist Greta Matassa and bassist/vocalist Clipper Anderson is the most squarely in the jazz singer tradition of all the discs in this section. Greta is new to me (she has made her reputation mainly in the Seattle area), but she is a real treasure, able to produce all sorts of colors with her voice. The selections on this disc are mostly uncommon Yuletide fare, but that’s also welcome because they’re from the likes of Burt Bacharach, Irving Berlin, and Bill Mays.
I’ve long wished that local jazz legend John Harmon would give us a Christmas CD. While that hasn’t happened yet, John leads his frequent compatriots John Gibson, Matt Turner, and Mike Hale in providing thoroughly effective and sympathetic backing for Mary Catterton on her “On A Silent Night.” It’s no surprise--Mary and John are the heart of the local (and long-running) Jazz Vespers concerts. Mary’s voice has a bit more Julie Andrews than a typical jazz singer, so I’d still like a more overtly jazzy Christmas disc from John and company--it’s only in my head so far.
If you’re a fan of the enormously successful Celtic pop group Celtic Woman, you’ll surely enjoy “Winter, Fire and Snow - A Celtic Christmas Collection” from former member Orla Fallon. I must admit, however, that without thinking about it, I cannot tell Enya from Orla from Moya from Loreena--fans know who I’m talking about.
A final female vocal entry comes from Olivia Newton-John, but her “Christmas Collection” is simply a re-sequencing of “The Christmas Collection”, originally released on Hip-O in 2001, and now on Green Hill.
Pop singer/songwriter Dave Barnes tops the season’s male vocal efforts with “Very Merry Christmas”. He sings only three pop standards (including a version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” that begins a bit like the Flamingos hit “I Only Have Eyes for You), but it’s his own songs that are the real treasure here anyway. Great lyrics, interesting and varied arrangements, and a fine soul/pop voice combine for a first-rate album.
At the heart of “Dedicated to You - Allan Harris Sings a Nat King Cole Christmas” is a man with a caramel almond mocha voice. While the CD is an overt attempt to create a CD in the style of Nat, he keeps his mimicry of Nat’s vocal mannerisms to an acceptable level--I even found his rendition of “The Christmas Song” different enough to warrant getting Allan’s CD even if you have a Nat disc. A great cocktail party disc, recorded before a live studio audience for just the right ambience.
LDS vocalist Alex Boye offers strong soul and gospel flavors on “My Christmas Wish”, and also has touches of Nat “King” Cole and Harry Belafonte. The effect is primarily mellow, which works well on tracks such as the very gentle “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” But there are also a couple of gospel numbers that will get your hands together as well, including the title cut.
Izzy Chait’s “Live for the Holidays” was recorded in 2005, and it is the only holiday CD I know with “If I Only Had A Brain”, “Make Someone Happy”, and “What A Wonderful World” on it, as well as more conventional holiday fare. The style is moderately jazzy, and my only real criticism is that Izzy sometimes seems to work a bit too hard to sound soulful or jazzy. Or maybe he’s just that way!
B. E. Taylor has produced a second seasonal CD, “Christmas 2”, of fine pop/rock arrangements of Christmas standards and a couple of originals. His voice has a touch of Michael Bolton to it, and he has enough style to be quite a nice listen.
JAZZ & ROCK
Most of the instrumental recordings that bill themselves as “Christmas jazz” contain music that is often pleasant but rarely all that creative. That can’t be said of “Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O.” Drummer Matt delighted us as part of Lawrence’s jazz series a couple of years ago, and along with Jeff Lederer on reeds and Paul Sikivie on bass, he now shows us what fun it is to ride on a jazz sleigh full of everything from “The Chipmunk Song” to the “Hallelujah Chorus” (which gets some free-blowing treatment).
“Little Town - Carols for Christmas” from the piano trio of North Carolinian Grant Osborne is less “out there”, but it’s comfortably far from smooth jazz. Grant stretches out with interesting takes on a dozen mostly familiar tunes, many of which will make it to my show because they just sound so good. If smooth jazz IS what you want (it is almost always my choice for party background music), “Christmas Jazz - Instrumental Jazz for the Holidays” is a great choice. The artists on it, including Jack Jezzro, Denis Solee, Sam Levine, and the wonderful Beegie Adair, have all had their own individual Christmas CDs on the Christmas-loving Green Hill label. Also on that label is trumpeter Leif Shires’ “Cool Jazz Christmas”, a fine alternative for folks who like a little Botti with their toddy.
Speaking of trumpets, Wynton Marsalis’ “Christmas Jazz Jam”, a Target-only release last year, is now widely available this year. It’s a great CD, with some expected Crescent City flavor too (even Papa Don Vappie shows up alongside some regular Marsalis sidemen). But I’m still ticked off about these “only available here” releases--this year I had to go to Target for Sheryl Crow’s new Christmas CD, and it only makes me love Target less.
“It’s Santa Claus”, a way-too-short recording from Ben Rudnick and Friends, offers eight secular Yule tunes in mostly rocking arrangements that draw upon a variety of pop musical traditions. In the same party atmosphere, with a bit more boogie, you’ll find “Holiday Time” from Professor Louie and The Crowmatix. While it has Christmas standards, a handful of originals penned by the prof himself are among the most rewarding tracks. Put one or both of these CDs on during your Christmas party, and the guests will soon forget that you didn’t get the cookies or dip quite right.
Or turn to a third tough-to-classify disc, “Crazy for Christmas”, from Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. Western swing, rock, jazz, and even a bit of Leon Redbone got into the blender for this disc of freshly-interpreted standards and delightful Dan-penned originals such as “Under the Mistletoe” and “Santa’s Workshop.”
The hardest-rocking CD of the season is unquestionably “A Blackheart Christmas”, featuring the artists of the label co-founded by Joan Jett, such as Girl In A Coma and The Dollyrots.. If somebody on your list says they want “punk” or “indie” or “alternative”, just shove this in their stocking along with a lump of coal, and they’ll be ecstatic. The third Christmas CD from The Brian Setzer Orchestra, “Christmas Comes Alive”, is one of the great Christmas party CDs of all time. It’s loud, it rocks, it boogies, it swings, it was recorded live--in short, I’m not talking about a cocktail party!
There is a long tradition of pop/rock Christmas CDs with contributions from diverse artists. If the individual acts are good enough and the producers are thoughtful enough, they can work quite well. The variety of the music can come through like a well-programmed radio station. “The Sounds of Christmas Volume 2” from Ken Kessler is a good example of how to do it right. But “It’s About Christmas Volume II” contains an example of what can go wrong. On it, a wonderful track called “The Nutcracker Overture” by James Hollihan’s Guitar Orchestra is followed by country singer James Cain’s belligerent complaint about people who want to take “Christ Out of My Christmas.” The effect is simply jarring. Nonetheless, the rest of the CD is a worthwhile sampler from It’s About Music, which--like my radio show--has been devoted to supporting the work of independent artists.
Much gentler and quieter music emanates from “Celtic Christmas Songs” by the Celtic trio Golden Bough, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. There have been many recordings of standard Christmas tunes with only a little Celtic flavor from a pennywhistle or a fiddle, but this one is Celtic through and through.
Probably the best lyrics of this season are found on the 22 songs presented by about as many singer/songwriters on “Christine Lavin Presents Just One Angel.” Beginning with the plaintive “Won’t You Please Stay for Christmas, Santa Claus?” from actor and Oshkosh fave Jeff Daniels, and proceeding through such gems as “The Christians and the Pagans”, “Jewish Kid Born On Christmas Day Talkin’ Blues”, and “When You’re Single at Christmastime”, this disc is full of tunes that say much more about the conditions of life in our times than songs with “thither” and “yore” in them.
Folkies will probably already know about Kate Rusby’s “Sweet Bells” since it first came out in 2008. The Yorkshire native is known for the simple beauty of her performances, and this release is no exception. I was particularly moved by her use of entirely new melodies for presenting the familiar words of old carols. The effect is to startle the listener into paying attention to words that had long ago lapsed into mindless repetition.
There are now an even dozen Revels Christmas CDs, and one of the newest is “Welcome Yule - An English Christmas Revels.” Revels was founded almost 40 years ago “to celebrate the seasons in performance through the power of traditional song, dance, storytelling and ritual from cultures around the world”, and nothing I’ve ever heard better conveys a real celebration. The lusty singing of the carols on this disc is far removed from the solemnities of cathedral singing--you’ll want to join in, just as people in the audience do! There are now Revels companies in ten cities, and another CD, “Down Through the Winters”, collects music from 16 years of the Portland, OR Revels
GUITAR & OTHER FOLK INSTRUMENTS
Steve Wariner’s “Guitar Christmas” is just that--the country star doesn’t even sing on it. It’s just 12 tracks (including two medleys) of some of the most beautiful, sensitive, and creative solo guitar playing I’ve ever heard on a Christmas CD. Sean Smith’s “Christmas” invites comparisons to John Fahey’s famous recordings of decades before--you’ll hear the kinship quite readily. But Sean’s interpretations are less quirky, and to me, more enjoyable. His will also join the ranks of top solo guitar Christmas performances.
This past summer Julie Patchouli and Bruce Hecksel, performing as Patchouli, were one of the summer concert attractions at the Green Bay Botanical Garden. But under a different name, Terra Guitarra, they have produced a fine album of Spanish-flavored Christmas guitar music entitled “Winter Solstice.” Their base is in Maiden Rock, WI, one of those little jewels on the Great River Road, across from Red Wing.
On that Minnesota side you’ll also find Simple Gifts, a group of six musicians centered on the outstanding acoustic guitarist Billy McLaughlin. They come together at Christmas, and in their eighth year they recorded “The Star Carol”, a CD of incredible peace and beauty and gentleness. Three of the musicians are female vocalists, and their blend on pieces like “The Cherry Tree Carol” or Billy’s own “Oh Mary” will have you wondering whether they are in fact angels. Yet the album ends with a Celtic breakdown that will have you dancing out the door into the cold St. Croix night--don’t forget your coat and gloves! Pianist and whistle player Jeni-Lyn Starr, the only female in the group who does not sing, released a remarkable album of solo Christmas piano entitled “Merry Christmas” in 1994--when she was in the 9th grade!
Only the title work and a couple of Llobet’s Catalan folksongs constitute the Christmas fare on The Modern Mandolin Quartet’s “Nutcracker Suite”, but that Nutcracker is worth the price of admission alone. The playing is simply breathtaking, and you could easily believe Tchaikovsky really had mandolins in mind when he wrote it--the sound of the instrument seems particularly appropriate for music about a dream.
The hammered dulcimer produces what might be considered an even more magical sound, and North Carolina’s Martin Moore gets everything out of the instrument on “Let Heaven and Nature Sing”, as well as providing acoustic guitar accompaniment. There’s nothing fancy about his interpretations of twelve Christmas standards--just straightforward playing that lets the sound of the instrument bring out the beauty of the songs.
I play so much piano music on my show that, where I’m concerned, it is a hard category in which to stand out. But Michael John Hall’s “Dashing Through The Snow”, subtitled “Soft Piano Christmas Classics” certainly does. Dreamily slow interpretations infused with creative jazz-flavored harmonizations make it the 2010 choice for drifting off by the glow of the Christmas tree. Even uptempo number’s like Mariah’s “All I Want for Christmas” are dialed way down. This CD will be on my home system after I sign off on Christmas Eve.
Michele McLaughlin’s intentions are clear on 2005’s “Christmas Plain and Simple”--well-played renditions of 10 familiar carols plus 5 originals that I liked even better. Virtually the same description applies to this year’s “Christmas Plain and Simple II”, right down to the balance of originals and standards, except that there are a few more interpretive twists. Both CDs could be bundled into a really nice gift.
How did Jon Schmidt’s 1997 “Christmas” escape my attention for 13 years? It has some of the same feel as the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas CDs with Jackson Berkey at the piano. That’s even truer of Jon’s Christmas followup, the 2004 “Winter Serenade”, which has a bit less in the way of overtly Christmas music. I guess you could call the style “ethereal new age classical” if it needs a name, but even without a category I would recommend it.
“Making Spirits Bright” may be Lorie Line’s 11th Christmas CD--I’ve lost count. It’s exactly what so many have come to expect from this Minnesotan who began her career in a Dayton’s department store--tasty pop arrangements of familiar Christmas fare that are fresh enough and well-played enough to have wide appeal. I still think of her as Liberace’s true heir. “On Christmas Night” from St. Paul’s Steven C. (Anderson) is equally enjoyable, although Steven’s style is a bit more reminiscent of George Winston, particularly when he lets notes hang in the air.
“Christmas for Two” from Lisa Downing is yet another fine album in which the artist has enough new to say in the arrangements to make familiar carols sound fresh. This disc is also marked by some interesting combinations of tunes, and by Lisa’s dynamic style (she can play a lot of notes when she needs to).
Paul Biscaccia’s 2004 recording “Classic Christmas-Jazz Christmas” differs from the others here in that it starts and ends with selections from substantial classical works - Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite”, and Liszt’s “Christmas Tree Suite.” In between on this nearly 80-minute CD, Paul offers 17 carols and songs with clear jazz harmonies if not always jazz rhythms, and I consider them to be the major reason to own this CD.
Steven Kristopher’s “The Christmas Peaceful Piano” consists of 11 mostly slow-tempo explorations of Christmas classics. The high frequencies seem to have been deliberately de-emphasized in the recording, to better enhance the pacific atmosphere claimed in the title.
“Visions of Christmas” from keyboardist/guitarist/mandolinist David Arkenstone & Friends isn’t really a piano CD. Instead, it harkens back to Christmas collections that included David on the new age Narada label of some twenty years ago. The sound is lively new age, but not as percussive or downright manic as Mannheim Steamroller can be.
So how do you choose among these 10 discs of Yuletide keyboard? I can’t provide any further help but to play generous selections from each on my program.
Choosing a new brass ensemble CD this year would be almost as hard. The biggest sound came from the eleven musicians on the reissue of 1991’s “Christmas with London Brass”, supplemented with occasional organ and percussion. The arrangements on the 19 tracks aren’t terribly innovative, but the playing is sufficiently outstanding to make this a good foundation CD for starting a Christmas brass collection.
The Motor City Brass Quintet is of more typical size, and their playing is at least equal to other noted brass ensembles. In addition to 9 Christmas standards in fine arrangements, the more unusual highlights on their “Christmas Vespers” include Debussy’s “Footprints in the Snow”, “The Trumpet Shall Sound” from The Messiah, and above all the 24-minute narrated “Christmas Vespers” telling of the Christmas story according to St. Matthew, composed by John Harbison. (Narrator Archer is a former Detroit mayor with a slight vocal resemblance to Kenny Rogers.)
The playing of eastern Pennsylvania’s Mainstreet Brass quintet on “Christmas Spirit” is just a degree or two less polished, but the arrangements and the obvious spirit of the players make for a CD worth considering. Particular highlights include a narrated telling of the story of old Scrooge (in abbreviated form), appropriately brass-ified, a delightful “Frosty”, and a slightly wacky “Rudolph and Santa.”
“Joy of the Season” from the Carolina Brass and North Carolina Master Chorale is unusual first in that the credits are in the right order. While quite a few choral recordings have brass backing, this live recording of a concert in Raleigh last year really is as much the brass quintet’s recording as it is the singers’. Of particular pleasure to me were David Maddux’ arrangement of “The First Noel” and Jack Coles’ “Jingle Bells” for brass, and Nicholas Myer’s serene “The Winter’s Night” for chorus.
“A Very Merry Christmas” from the artists of the Opening Day Entertainment Group belongs here simply because 7 of the 16 cuts have one of the most famous brass ensembles of all, the Canadian Brass, in starring or supporting roles. The disc opens with the title cut sung by superb pop vocalist Zoe Bentley and ends with her rendition of “Silent Night”, with the Canadian Brass providing backing. In between I found much to like, including 3 selections from acoustic guitarist Sean Kelly and 2 from Catherine Wilson’s piano-violin-cello trio Ensemble Vivant. Both of them also have their own Christmas CDs on Opening Day. Sean’s “Christmas Guitar” is simply one of the best such recordings available, and Ensemble Vivant’s “Christmas Tidings” will really appeal to those who like a classical chamber music sound in their Christmas tunes.
OTHER CLASSICAL INSTRUMENTS
Those stringed instruments remind one that not all Christmas classical instrumental recordings are made of brass. While the string quartet is the most common small ensemble in classical music, it is not much represented at Christmas. This year, however, there was a major addition in the form of “I Saw Three Ships” from England’s Manor House String Quartet. The playing is both lovely and spirited on the 23 selections, and the arrangements--all by violinist Vaughan Jones--take full advantage of the capabilities and sonorities of these very fancy wooden boxes with strings attached.
The combination of instruments represented on Quartetto Gelato’s “The Magic of Christmas”-- primarily violin, cello, oboe, and accordion--is not found anywhere else that I know of. Throw in vocals from gypsy violinist Peter De Sotto, who sounds like one of the great operatic tenors of an earlier time (you ought to hear his “Nessun Dorma”), and you’ve got the most unusual disc of the season. Will you like it? The arrangements are extremely musical (not gimmicky), but some of them do shock the ear! My favorite cut was the Nutcracker’s “Trepak”, which should have had an accordion in the score all along!
The only large-scale instrumental recording I received this year was “Holiday Classics” from the Seattle Symphony under the baton of longtime conductor Gerard Schwarz. Four selections from Handel’s “Water Music” and five from “The Nutcracker Suite” are on it, but I was even more charmed by the arrangements of familiar carols by Schwartz, Samuel Jones, and Ben Hausmann. Schwarz’ “Silent Night” begins with the melody played by a horn quartet sounding like those long Alpenhorns--if you play it in your house, don’t be surprised if it snows indoors and St. Bernards bearing schnapps appear.
Big chorus, big orchestra is a more common combination, going back to the likes of Robert Shaw and Eugene Ormandy. The primary carrier of this pop classical tradition continues to be the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra, led by one of our era’s great conductors and arrangers, Mack Wilberg. Last year’s concert was called “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, and featured Natalie Cole (she’s on half of the CD’s 7 tracks). Wilberg’s talents are most clearly exhibited on the “Christmas Carols in the Air” medley.
For what sounds like an even bigger sound, consider “Christmas with the Washington Chorus”, recorded live in DC last December 23 before an audience of thousands. The program is mostly standards, mixing the exclamations of “Joy to the World” with the near-whispers of Luboff’s famed setting of “Still, Still, Still.” Support from the National Capital Brass and Percussion (which includes an organist!) is heard on most tracks, contributing much to the celebratory atmosphere.
“Christmas at America’s First Cathedral” from The Baltimore Choral Arts full chorus and orchestra has one of the most interesting programs this year. Much of it will be unfamiliar to listeners, including 6 world premieres of carols by Auburn professor Rosephanye Powell and 1 from James Lee III, both African-American composers. They write carols of the quality we’ve gotten from modern master John Rutter (also represented by two tracks on the disc). Powell’s “Ogo ni fun Oluwa”, an exuberant song sung in Yoruba, captures the celebration of Christmas as well as few songs do. And there’s a DVD including many of the songs included in the package!
Three discs built around specific composers and compositions joined my plate of digital “cookies.” From the famed London Philharmonic Orchestra came a disc called “Jurowski conducts Bach, Mendelssohn, and Vaughan Williams.” Specifically, the works included are Bach’s Cantata 63, Mendelssohn’s choral cantata “Vom himmel hoch”, and the concert version of Vaughan Williams’ Nativity play “The First Nowell.” I’m a sucker for any well-performed Vaughan Williams, and that immediately moved this CD into my “recommended” file.
Another world-renowned UK ensemble, the Philharmonia Orchestra, offers us “Sacred Seasons - A Christmas Album” under the conductorship of Carl Davis. The unfamiliar delights within begin with Davis’ 1993 suite from the 1992 “A Christmas Carol” ballet, “The Nativity Story” based on his 1987 score for the 1925 silent film Ben Hur, Morton Gould’s “Serenade of Carols”, and “Sacred Seasons” itself, in which Davis uses themes from Bach to create a portrait of the seasons.
“A Christmas Carol - The Concert” tells Ebeneezer’s story once again, this time with a score by Bob Christianson and lyrics by Alisa Hauser, using a full orchestra, choir, rhythm section, narrator, and soloists. Bob intends it to become a symphony orchestra showpiece, and indeed it should. But not for the “young people’s concerts”--the combined effect of music and narration is more terrifying than in any other telling I’ve heard. Those ghosts are NOT kidding! (Anybody got another Depends?)
If you’ve read my column or listened to my program over the years, you know the extremely high regard I have for the recordings of what I call the Big 3 of collegiate Lutheran Christmas celebrations--St. Olaf and Concordia in Minnesota, and Luther in Iowa. Their respective 2009 recordings continue long traditions of excellence, innovation, and spirituality. Concordia’s disc “Journey to Bethlehem” has the most familiar program, although many carols are given director Rene Clausen’s gifted arranging treatment. The closing number, Egil Hovland’s “Stay With Us”, is matched only by St. Olaf’s “Beautiful Savior” arrangement for bringing a listener completely into the peace of the season.
As usual in recent years, St. Olaf takes two CDs to present its entire concert, entitled “Light of All Creation - Scatter the Darkness” in 2009. Except for the numbers where the audience joins in, most of the music is unfamiliar. That’s what I’ve come to expect from St. Olaf’s--ever fresh ways of putting the beauty of the season into music. But my favorite performance from the Big 3 in 2009 is captured on “Christmas at Luther 2009”, in part because of the very effective dynamics (check out Randall Thompson’s “Nowell”). This is as big and joyful as music can be. And, lucky readers, you can hear Luther’s top ensemble, the Nordic Choir, in concert at First English Lutheran’s downtown site ( go to www.luthertickets.com or call 800-458-8437 for tickets). It is one of the great collegiate choirs of America.
The only collegiate performances I think of in the same mental breath as those of the Midwestern kids are those from the University of Utah Singers and the Brigham Young University Singers. One of the BYU live performances has been released on “The Secret of Christmas”, and it has the same deep spirit of the season. The BYU group is smaller, and has only piano accompaniment instead of full orchestra, yet it still makes a wonderful sound. Highlights include Maurice Besley’s “The Shepherds Had An Angel”, Kenneth Jennings “Calm on the Listening Ear of Night” (Jennings led the St. Olaf forces for many years), the traditional African carol “Isseh, Isseh”, and of course, Jimmy Van Heusen’s “The Secret of Christmas”, written for Bing Crosby 51 years ago.
I was also pleased to receive a goodly number of quality non-collegiate choral Christmas CDs this year. Miami’s Seraphic Fire released “A Seraphic Fire Christmas” this year. While it begins with too much unadorned plainchant for my taste, the performance of a program of both early and recent works commonly heard at the concerts of the nation’s best choral groups left little to be desired. One of the closing works, Frank Tichelli’s “There Will Be Rest”, had a particular glow to it. It’s nice to know there’s also great singing down where the orange and palm trees sway.
Next stop Corpus Christi, for “A Cathedral Christmas”, one of those “big sound” recordings from the vocal and instrumental ensembles of Corpus Christi Cathedral. Not surprisingly, four of Mack Wilberg’s arrangements turn up here, including the crescendoing processional “Carol to the King.” Then on to Denver for “Little Tree”, one of the best contemporary choral recordings, from Kantorei. There are gems of choral writing and performing all over the disc, including both Heitzeg’s and Whitacre’s “Little Tree”, Iowan Alf Houkom’s “The Rune of Hospitality”, Fink’s “What Sweeter Music”, Rutter’s “Mary’s Lullaby”, and Cherwien’s “Little Lamb. And the conductor, Richard Larson, is a Luther grad!
Thence to Minneapolis, where Philip Brunelle’s VocalEssence Ensemble Singers and Chorus recorded “Behold This Heavenly Light.”
Fully fourteen of the twenty tracks are world premiere recordings, making this a dream recording for a choral director in search of new things to sing. But it is a listener’s dream as well, because it seems only the most excellent of choral ensembles are allowed in the Twin Cities. It is at or very near the top of the choral pile this year. Joining it would be a late arrival on my doorstep, “What Sweeter Music” from England’s outstanding chamber choir Tenebrae. Aside from truly world-class singing, that CD includes beautiful new arrangements of such carols as “Silent Night” (by Jonathan Rathbone) and “Away In A Manger” (by Tenebrae founder Nigel Short), familiar modern choral works by such as Rutter and Tavener, and songs that are just plain fun like the opening Ben Parry arrangement of Jingle Bells and Andrew Carter’s “animal”-filled treatment of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
“Keeping Christmas” was recorded by Gloriae Dei Cantores in Orleans, MA this past August, and it is one of the most unusual choral recordings of this or any other Christmas season. It weaves together outstanding performances of 15 carols (many unfamiliar), George Malcolm’s “Missa ad Praesepe” (Mass at the Crib), and 7 readings from Matthew’s account of the Nativity. This is a thoroughly spiritual recording, lacking even a single secular note.
Heading back down the Atlantic Coast brings us to Charleston, SC, where the Taylor Festival Choir plus a handful of top Celtic musicians (including Wisconsin native and Celtic harpist Kim Robertson) recorded “Sing we now of Christmas” in June. The recording is a representation of the annual Taylor Music Group Celtic Christmas concerts, with familiar carols in new settings, less familiar carols, and Celtic flavor for many. Kim stands out in a wonderful setting of “Gabriel’s Message” by noted Midwest composer Stephen Paulus. This is another disc I’d recommend for those who want more choral Christmas music without getting the same old thing.
Having circled the US, we’ll cross the pond for three new additions to the huge list of English cathedral Christmas recordings in existence. “Christmas from Winchester” showcases the boys, girls, and men of the cathedral choir in familiar arrangements of popular carols, with Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” dropped squarely in the middle. That work also appears on “Hodie - Advent to Christmas Day” from the all-adult Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir, following Vaughan Williams lovely “Fantasia on Christmas Carols.” Ten carols are also included, among them two fine new songs by Steven Kings, and a great rendering of “I Wonder As I Wander” from Carl Rutti.
“Plum Pudding” is a re-release of the 1992 recording from soprano Dame Felicity Lott, reader Gabriel Woolf, and the Joyful Company of Singers. It is similar to the Christmas Revels in terms of overflowing Christmas spirit, and mixing great singing with some of the best Christmas prose and poetry of all time, including Dylan Thomas’ “Memories of Christmas”, John Julius Norwich’s “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, Cpt. R. J. Armes moving “Christmas Truce” from WWI, and my personal favorite, Leonard Clark’s “Singing in the Streets.”
The content of the program on “A Family Christmas” from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is much akin to what we’ve come to expect from the Boston Pops. It mixes sacred and secular, pop and classical, but is overall lighthearted. One major difference is a substantial choral contribution from RSNO’s Junior Chorus.
Before taking leave of Her Majesty, note must be made of several early music releases. “As It Fell on a Holie Eve - Music for an Elizabethan Christmas” from Parthenia - A Consort of Viols” and Julianne Baird (Americans all!) is a disc of Byrd, Bull, Morley, and the prolific composer Anonymous, among others, from the time of the reign of Henry’s kid Betsy. Byrd and Thomas Tallis also account for 8 of 12 tracks on “Puer natus est - Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas”, which covers roughly the same era. It’s an offering from the excellent Grammy-nominated 14 voice mixed chamber choir stile antico.
15th century English carols dominate “The Cherry Tree - Songs, Carols and Ballads for Christmas”, the seventh seasonal release from the women who comprise the Anonymous 4, one of the best selling acts in all of classical music. Most of the music will actually be familiar, and the singing--well, the singing of this quartet has always been other worldly.
Germany, of course, is the other major source of Christmas music and tradition. The Hofkapelle Munchen baroque orchestra offers us “Weihnachten am Munchen Hof” (Christmas in the Munich Court), an all-instrumental disc of Bach, Biber, Torelli, and other composers of the late 17th/early 18th century time. The music of Bach is even more dominant on the 2 CD set “Christmas Season - Favourite Christmas Songs” from Germany’s prolific Haennsler Classic label. Much or all of it seems to have been drawn from earlier recordings on the label, but it’s two discs at a budget single disc price!
Crossing back over the ocean we encounter another wonderful soprano, Monica Whicher, accompanied only by noted harpist Judy Loman in “Lullabies and Carols for Christmas”, a generous Christmas recital recorded in Newmarket, Ontario back in May. Monica’s voice is beautiful indeed, but Judy’s arrangements take these mostly familiar carols into another dimension altogether. Her harp is also heard alone in the Interlude from Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols”, one of the most heartstoppingly beautiful pieces ever written for this crystalline instrument, as well as Tournier’s “Six Noels Pour la Harpe” and renowned harpist Carlos Salzedo’s “Concert Variations on Adeste Fideles.”
From the same province comes “Laudemus cum armonia”, the sixth Christmas disc from the Stairwell Carollers, a fine Ottawa chamber choir. I can recommend all six, and they are of particular interest if you like a nice helping of carols sung in French (Canada, y’know).
I don’t know that I ever had a Christmas CD from New Zealand in the collection before, but now I do. “Tidings” is sung by the Choir of Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, and the program is an excellent modern one, including works by Carter, Lauridsen, Tavener, Whitacre, and Warlock, as well as New Zealanders Geoffrey Coker and Andrew Baldwin. The choir is a tad less polished than a professional choir, but as cathedral choirs go it is quite good.
I’ve saved the latest Christmas at the Carillon recording, “Here Comes the Light” by Austin’s Conspirare, for last. This is one of America’s greatest choruses, and their Christmas concert typically mixes all sorts of music, much of it not overtly Christmas, into a presentation that has more of what we need Christmas to mean to us than anything else I know. The mix this time includes music of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jacob Handl, Jesse Colin Young, Stevie Wonder, Stephen Paulus, Antje Duvekot (whose stunning Lighthouse is joined to Bach), Vince Guaraldi, and many more, concluding with Conspirare’s famous mix of “I Could Have Danced All Night” harmonized by “On Christmas Night” and “Silent Night”, and guest Patrice Pike’s “I Won’t Give Up.”
Indeed, it is a time not to give up. It is the season of hope.
While the links in the survey are mostly to labels’ and artists’ websites, almost all of the CDs can be purchased online at Amazon.com, CDUniverse.com, or both. The best selection of classical CDs is at HBDirect.com.
A large number of late arrivals will be included in an addition to this survey posted at www.uwosh.edu/wrst/christmas.php