Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Music for the holiday season, part 1


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Since sometime before Santa first grew his Claus, I've been reviewing holiday music for the B.A.R. As fate would have it, the recordings that made their way to me this year are virtually all about Christmas, overwhelmingly classical, and virtually all available as downloads. I'm not one to sing the "If You Can't Lick Them, Join Them Carol," but what is, is. Welcome to the first installment of our two-part survey of Christmas music.

Vintage Christmas, David Ian Trio (Prescott Records) Sweet, simple, unchallenging fare this, with the traditional sounds of Ian's jazz piano trio and assorted percussion performing gentle takes on everything from "Deck the Halls" to "Good King Wenceslas." Even upbeat carols such as "Joy to the World" have a lovely vintage halo that declares cozy times by the fireside (or, in our case, the propane-fueled pseudo-fireplace) and eggnog ueber alles.

Imagine Christmas, Various Artists (Sono Luminus) Available as a very hi-resolution download, as well as in ear-burning mp3, this superbly recorded album presents a dazzling mix of excellent soloists and ensembles performing everything from Tchaikovsky's "December: Christmas" (Bruce Levingston, piano) and Jascha Heifetz's arrangement of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" (Irina Muresanu & Matei Varga) to "Joy to the World" (reimagined by Cuarteto LatinoAmericano & Lydia Lewis) and Lee Mendelson and Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here" (reimagined by Caleb Nei). Just imagine what the American Contemporary Music Ensemble's "Silent Night" sounds like. Totally tasteful, absolutely delightful, and highly recommended as the perfect Christmas refresher.

A Song for Christmas, The London Quartet, Cantabile (Champs Hill Records) Although a few of the very English voices in The London Quartet betray a bit of wobble, they convey the joyous spirit of the season in a mix of contemporary, pop, Broadway-tinged songs and a few classic carols. Franz Gruber (1781-1863), Sammy Cahn (1913-93), and Paul McCartney (b. 1942) rub shoulders on a disc in which good vibes occasionally trump the need for editing.

Thys Yool: A Medieval Christmas, Martin Best Ensemble (Nimbus Records) A re-release of an early digital classic (1988) by an early music ensemble, this seriously assembled four-part program merges Christian and pagan traditions in music that spans some 350 years. It's a shame that Thys Yool wasn't recorded a good 15 years later, when digital technology began to mature. Nonetheless, what we do have is alternately moving, rousing, and enlightening. Best's arrangement of "There is no rose" for unaccompanied voices seems to presage the impeccably tuned, unadorned sound we came to love from the now-retired American women's quartet Anonymous 4.

Christmas Presence, The King's Singers (Signum Classics) Recorded live in King's College Chapel, Cambridge, the venerable male English sextet The King's Singers performs Christmas repertoire from the Renaissance to the present day. Enjoy Orlando de Lassus and William Byrd rubbing shoulders with Francis Poulenc and Mel Torme, all in the best of spirits. Chanticleer's countertenors and male sopranos could certainly give the high voices in this group a run for their money, but once you make peace with their sound, The King's Singers' sincere performances, captured in an extremely warm, natural acoustic, are a balm for the soul.

O Holy Night: A Merton Chorus, Choir of Merton College, Oxford; Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin Nicholas (Delphian) Yup, the English seem to be hooked on Christmas as always, with a traditional mixed-voice English College choir of women and men mixing a cappella performances with others that include full orchestra and organ. Listening to this disc feels very much like what I imagine being at a concert in Oxford during the holiday season would feel like. Lots of favorites here, and a lot to love.

Christmas Card Carols by John Turner, Intimate Voices, directed by Christopher Stokes (Divine Art) Recorder player John Turner has performed with many famed early music ensembles, including David Munrow's Early Music Consort of London and the English Baroque Soloists, and given first performances of over 600 works for the recorder. These include pieces by two of America's most famous gay composers, Leonard Bernstein and the Ned Rorem. Here, however, Turner joins forces with other English musicians and singers to perform his own "Christmas Card Carols," which he composed each year for friends. Many of these were written for fellow composers, performers, and academics, as well as in response to church commissions. "Christmas Lullaby" (2010), for example, was dedicated to pianist Stephen Hough "in memory of his and my adored music teacher Douglas Steele, a pupil of Bruno Walter and sometime assistant to Sir Thomas Beecham." If that doesn't make you want to take a listen, nothing will.

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