This is a longer version of the survey of new Christmas CDs that I wrote for the Post Crescent, plus—unlike the print version—it has clickable links for purchasing these fine discs. This survey will grow to have many more choral/classical CDs since a huge number arrived too late for the survey below, plus significant numbers of vocal and contemporary Christian/gospel recordings, and much more. And it is accessible year-‘round at no cost, along with the reviews from years past.
December 15, 2013
A few weeks ago Entertainment magazine published a comprehensive roundup of the new Christmas CDs receiving heavy promotion. I’m proud to say not one is in my review, because I advocate for all the great music that gets little or no attention. In my opinion, it’s the really good stuff.
“Noel”, from accomplished Boston area classical guitarist John Muratore, is certainly a candidate for best new curl-up-by-the-fire disc. It’s a treat throughout, not only because of John’s playing—most evident on a French organ noel transcribed for guitar—but because of the musical variety. The disc begins with the Catalan Carol made famous by the great Segovia, and ends with Bach. In between there is a great arrangement of Greensleeves by jazz guitarist Gene Bertoncini, who visits this area often, a villancico by early 20th century master guitar composer Agustin Barrios, and familiar carols in fine arrangements that showcase the beauty of an instrument seemingly made for Christmas Eve.
A Christmas violin-piano duo CD could be an unimaginative runthrough of familiar carols. Or it could be something completely different, as Jasper Wood and David Riley prove on “Stradivarius Christmas.” Terry Vosbein’s settings of over a dozen carols are as fresh as a newly-cut evergreen. The little riff from “Last Christmas” opens “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, Beethoven’s moonlight shines on the three kings, and every tune sounds both strangely familiar and strangely not, while remaining entirely musical. And did I mention the playing is first-rate? But sisters Alison Beck (piano) and Elizabeth Beck (violin) also play this game and play it very well on “December Carols.” “Carol of the Bells” joins Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in B Minor”, “We Three Kings”, “Lo, How A Rose”, and “Still, Still, Still” get Debussied, “Greensleeves” meets tango maestro Astor Piazzolla—get the idea?
Doug Smith’s two previous acoustic guitar CDs for Christmas have long been among my favorites, and I’m pleased to report that his third, “Another Guitar for Christmas”, is worthy to join them. Doug is one of the best fingerstyle guitarists of our time, as you’ll quickly realize if this becomes the first of his discs in your collection.
Here’s an unusual pairing—a guitar with a really big fiddle. Dan Baraszu is the guitarist and Joseph Patrick Moore hugs the double bass on “Christmas Time Is Here.” The tunes are all familiar, but the arrangements are not, and this is one of those rare discs that charmed me on first hearing.
Santa will need to eat lots more cookies if he listens to “Christmas” from Nnenna Freelon and the John Brown Big Band, because he will be swinging his butt off. Freelon is one of the best jazz vocalists around these days, and here she gets great support and superb big band arrangements, beginning with one from legendary Count Basie arranger Frank Foster. A highlight for me was a bluesy version of a song I’ve long heard as in my head as a blues—“Silent Night”, complete with opening notes from Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.” This is a top-of-the-pile disc for any jazz lover.
The New York Voices are matched only by Bobby McFerrin in terms of the number of times—three-- they have been performers in Lawrence University’s Jazz Series. Their gift to us this year is “Let It Snow”, an offering dominated by the usual great arrangements from NYV founder Darmon Meader. Either a big band or a studio orchestra provides backing on most tracks, but the three tracks that stood out for me were a cappella, including a serene “Silent Night.” It’s another must-have for jazz lovers.
How is that nobody thought of this before? On “The Nutcracker Suites”, the Harmonie Ensemble/New York presents BOTH Tchaikovsky’s 1892 suite and the swinging 1960 rework of it from Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The ensemble draws upon the talents of major NY classical and jazz musicians, so the playing is as good as it gets. I was reminded once again of why I and so many others love both classical and jazz musics—great substance and great enjoyment dwell within both.
Some of the most innovative arrangements of Christmas tunes come from brass ensembles, and the Canadian Brass offers a sleighful of examples on “Christmas Time Is Here.” The theme is animated holiday specials, particularly one about that kid whose initials are also CB. The first Christmas recording from this outfit appeared about 40 years ago, and they continue to set the bar for brass sound. If anything, “Reindeer Games” from the much bigger Clarion Brass Choir is even more interesting, largely due to the imagination of founder/arranger/trumpet gang member William Berry. He describes what they do as “Clarionizing” tunes we all know and love, and it is simply one grin after another for listeners.
Do you earn for the Christmas of an earlier time, before the “mas” in it became just an abbreviation for “mass merchandizing”? Then perhaps you’re looking for Elizabeth Mitchell and Friends’ “The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs in and out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook”, the book being American Folksongs for Christmas. Some of the many songs on it are familiar, more are not, but all are simple and direct expressions of joy, and as non-commercial as you could wish. It is the music of the home, not the studio.
But good songs are still being written, and on ”Just One Angel v2.0” Christine Lavin collects 20 from a large contingent of today’s singer/songwriters. Every year we want to hear the songs we've heard so much before, though they have words that we don't know, like "thither", "yon", and "yore." In truth, the words in much of the Christmas music we love are not very important. It is mostly the tunes, and the singing (or even humming) of them that stir the old feelings. But on Just One Angel 2.0, the reverse is true. Among them the songs have much wittiness, sappiness, wistfulness, and happiness--each one in its own way saying something true about how we really feel at Christmas time.
The many recordings of the famed Revels are folk in every sense. This year’s offering is “The Road to Compostela” featuring the music of Spain and Galicia. Some will be familiar (Fum, Fum, Fum!”, “A la Nanita Nana”, “Carol of the Birds”) while much won’t. Regardless, you’ll feel like Rick Steves or Joseph Rosendo or Rudy Maxa just dropped you into a village celebration that you’ve always wanted to see and partake in.
I had the extreme pleasure of attending the Christmas program presented by Simple Gifts with Billy McLaughlin in Lakeville, MN last Sunday. Billy is a master guitarist, and the rest of the group consists of a drummer, three women who harmonize like angels (and play instruments too), plus Celtic multi-instrumentalist Laura MacKenzie. They put a huge amount of Christmas spirit into their performance, much of which is heard on their new CD “Winter Grace.” It was quite a contrast to where we had just been, killing time before the concert: the Mall of America, where there the real Christmas would die were it not for outfits like Simple Gifts to keep it alive.
You can get the new Mary J. Blige, Kelly Clarkson, or Susan Boyle seasonal CDs and have just what millions of others have. But for something completely different that your friends don’t have, try “Holiday Lights Vol. 5”, on which an assortment of highly talented Twin Cities musicians (including The Blenders) contribute 15 tracks of mostly familiar Yule tunes in a wide variety of pop styles. The compilation is created each year in support of the IBEW Holiday Lights in the Park display in St. Paul’s Phalen Park. As the title suggests, there are earlier volumes still available, and they’re just as good.
There are hardly any recognizable Christmas tunes at all on “One Voice – Conspirare Christmas 2012”, but as always, this Austin, TX group blends choral singing of the highest order with the most unusual and effective programming by far of any choral ensemble. I’ve given up trying to describe it, but Conspirare’s own liner notes call it “an innovative and daring blend of sacred and secular, art music and popular music, concert hall performance and community sing” that is “intended to bring us together in a spirit of unity, peace and hope and to reflect upon the sacredness of all things.” If that isn’t the true meaning of Christmas, what is?
I have always loved to get one great surprise present among the items I had asked for. This year it is a fine live recording entitled “In Silent Night” from Seattle’s Musica Sacra Chamber Choir. The music, beginning with the title tune (a personal favorite) and ending with Caccini’s “Dona Nobis Pacem” (the Ave Maria made famous by Libera), is mostly unfamiliar, or new settings of familiar works. The result will simultaneously warm you and give you chills.
The perennials of Christmas are those yearly recordings that I can recommend even before audition. “Christmas at Luther 2012: Tidings of Comfort and Joy”, “All Are Welcome! 2012 Concordia Christmas Concert”, and “The Wondrous Gift is Given: Christmas at St. Olaf 2012”, recorded at the nationally known Christmas festivals of three Upper Midwest Lutheran (ELCA) colleges, are in that category. I attended my third St. Olaf Christmas festival about a week ago, and I am sure that if there is a heaven, it sounds just like that. And as long as there are young adults making music like that, I’m sure this world will be just alright.
But there’s much more. On “Christmas! Noel! Weihnachten!” Germany’s RIAS Kammerchor uses the music of some of the greatest sacred music composers, from Praetorius to Part, to tell the Christmas story. The highly regarded Choir of Clare College interweaves plainchant with more music of the masters on “Veni Emmanuel.” Included are Jan Sandstrom’s heartstopping arrangement of “Lo, How A Rose”, Peter Warlock’s haunting “Bethlehem Down”, the recently departed John Tavener’s “God is with us”, plus Rachmaninov, Rutter, and Howells. Newly commissioned settings of the Seven Advent Antiphons used on that disc, by seven composers, are among the many highlights on “Advent at Merton” from the Choir of Merton College, Oxford. Another big helping of unfamiliar carols, including five world premieres, comprise the menu on “Mystic Meaning” from the Choirs of the Cathedral of St. John in Albuquerque.
For those who like their Christmas music in black and white, Tobin Mueller’s “Midwinter Born” is one of the top solo piano picks this year. I’ve heard well over a hundred such CDs over the decades, and it really takes something special to make me think a disc was worth making and adding to the pile. Well, Tobin has a lot that’s new to say with a generous helping of standards, and I’ve already found it to be a disc I come back to quite often. Alex-Szolt’s “O Holy Night” is his third Christmas CD but first featuring solo piano. He’s also full of new thoughts on old carols, with a particular flair for mini-medleys of two or three thematically related songs.
When I listen to David Hicken’s excellent “Carols of Christmas”, I have to forget that he lives right around the corner from Matsumoto’s Shave Ice shop in Haleiwa, arguably the best source of that Hawaiian treat. But his playing and interpretations are at least as good as a rainbow shave ice with ice cream and sweet beans (that says a lot), so I put aside my envy and the realization that what comes out of El Toro (my red snowblower) wouldn’t taste nearly as good. Mahalo, David!
Lorie Line will be playing at the Fox Cities PAC tomorrow night, but this is far from her first visit. And her new Christmas CD “Born in Bethlehem” is far from her first—if I count right, it’s the eighth, among a total output of some 40 discs. But it’s one that Lorie herself notes as a return to her solo piano roots—the kind of music she was making so many years ago in Dayton’s department store, rather than the heavily arranged and orchestrated type for which she was known later. The tunes include many less familiar works (I think she has done all of the familiar ones!), and her playing has that sensitive beauty I first heard long ago.
By Gerry “Dr. Christmas” Grzyb