[The Bay Area Reporter] Music meant for the holidays
It’s that time again, boys and girls. If you’re looking for holiday-themed music, here are some of the finest new releases that have come my way. Enjoy!
Carla Bley: Carla’s Christmas Carols (Watt/35 – ECM Records) Jazz great Carla Bley doesn’t travel too far from the manger in this oft-intriguing Christmas recording that’s rich in classics. Playing piano and celeste to Steve Swallow’s bass and chimes and the Partyka Brass Quintet’s winds, chimes, and glockenspiel, Bley’s mellow musicianship isn’t likely to upset Pastor Pratt. But it will put a smile on your face. Especially intriguing is the two-part rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; the first is almost easy listening, the second a jazz take in which Bley and her helpers swing a major step away from the melody line. Nothing gets raucous, although Bley’s own composition, “Hell’s Bells,” could arouse the ire of the devout. Her “Jesus Maria” is mellow enough to prevent some from yelling same, and the final, live performance of “Joy to the World” deserving of applause.
The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford: Carols by Candlelight(Harmonia Mundi) Reverence is the byword on this beautifully recorded English choir of men and boys. These folks and their predecessors have been processing down the aisles of Magdalen College Chapel daily for over five centuries, landing them parts in Richard Attenborough’s movie Shadowlands, and the London premiere of Paul McCartney’s Ecco Cor Meum. The boys lend a chaste naivete to Britten’s “A Hymn to the Virgin,” and the beauteous blend on “In dulci jubilo” and Mendelssohn’s “Hark! The herald angels sing” is irresistible. John Gardner’s swinging “Tomorrow Shall Be my Dancing Day,” sung with delicious English accents, is a welcome change of pace from the other fare. As expected, Harmonia Mundi excels in capturing the natural resonance of a church environment.
Deuter: Celebration of Light (New Earth) One of the finest New Age artists around, Santa Fe-based multi-instrumentalist/composer Deuter mixes 12 mostly familiar songs from the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th centuries with one of his own lovely, heart-touching compositions. The presentation is simple, the instruments mostly acoustic, and the feeling one of deep and abiding peace and contentment. The combination of silver flute, alto flute, recorders, French horn, and synthesized instruments is just lovely.
Canadian Brass: Sweet Songs of Christmas (Opening Day) Here’s a classic recording from the perennial Canadian Brass. The arrangements, including several by Luther Henderson, are as familiar as the brass’ sound. There are even three Chanukah songs, including a “Dreydl” that will have Members of the Tribe spinning (in a good way). Christopher Dedrick’s “Jingle Bell Rock” is lots of fun. While the three arrangements from Handel’s Messiah are quite a bit different from what G.F. envisioned, he’d certainly be delighted by their musicality. The Brass’ Yamaha 24-karat gold-plated instruments yield a surprisingly warm and mellow sound.
Young People’s Chorus of New York City: Coolside of Yuletide (Vital Records) This lovely disc features a chorus of young and recently matured voices singing very sweet arrangements by artistic director and founder Francisco J. Nunez, often composed in collaboration with Jim Papoulis. American Idol finalist Phil Stacey sings wonderfully on “Where Are My Angels,” and Rosanne Cash joins the New Yorkers and a Global Choir of thousands from around the world for “How Many Christmases.” Sometimes unaccompanied, sometimes backed by acoustic instruments, the chorus sings wonderfully.
In Terra Pax: A Christmas Anthology (Naxos) This new, extremely beautiful recording from the City of London Choir and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra radiates freshness. The music, by Holst, Joubert, Mathias, Howells, Finzi, Warlock, Leighton, Rutter, Gardner, and Vaughan Williams, is all 20th-century English. Soprano Julia Doyle and baritone Roderick Williams make welcome appearances on a disc that wafts a breath of fresh air on centuries of English tradition. The warmth and clarity of these performances have won me over.orkers and a Global Choir of thousands from around the world for “How Many Christmases.” Sometimes unaccompanied, sometimes backed by acoustic instruments, the chorus sings wonderfully.
Carols for Christmas: Original Album Classics (Sony Music) Welcome to nostalgia land, as Mario Lanza, Placido Domingo, Eileen Farrell, the Robert Shaw Chorale, and Leonard Bernstein (conducting the politically incorrect Mormon Tabernacles with considerable bombast and almost embarrassingly grandiose 3-D Technicolor sound) give their considerable all for the holidays. Eileen Farrell had one of the great voices of the 20th century, and she’s caught here near her considerable prime. The sonics aren’t always great, but the chance to enjoy such great artists at a bargain price is impossible to resist.
The companion set, The Joy of Christmas (Sony Music), boasts albums from the great Marilyn Horne, Boston Pops, Philadelphia Brass Ensemble, and Philadelphia Orchestra, with – this is special – the original NBC Telecast of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors.
Dunedin Consort & Players: Handel: Messiah (Linn) John Butt’s exceptional ensemble performs Handel’s original 1742 Dublin version. The especially fine chorus is comprised of only 13 voices, yet carries wonderfully over the authentic instrument orchestra. Director Butt uses two contraltos as well as the usual soprano, tenor, and bass. Tenor Nicholas Mulroy is quite fine, bass Matthew Brook a little less polished than some, contraltos Annie Gill and Claire Wilkinson refreshingly uncontrived, and soprano Susan Hamilton a joy in her simplicity. Hamilton’s “Rejoice greatly” demonstrates Handel’s first thoughts on his beloved aria. Performed with a plethora of tasteful embellishments, this fascinating performance is a keeper.
Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia: Handel: Messiah (Hyperion) Directed by Stephen Layton, these forces perform a slightly modified variant of Handel’s almost final 1750 version. Instead of a contralto, Layton features the excellent countertenor Iestyn Davies; the pastoral simplicity of his “He shall feed his flock” is quite fetching. The 31-voiced Polyphony sings fabulously, as do bass Andrew Foster-Williams and tenor Allan Clayton. Soprano Julia Doyle is especially pure in her higher range. This is an important and extremely enjoyable addition to the huge Messiah discography.