Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Music for the holiday season, part 2


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Stocking still empty? You can probably grab a USB stick, download these albums, and have fine holiday gifts for the carol-starved amongst us. As a follow-up to my first survey, published last week, here's Part 2 of our Xmas music survey.

In Dulci Jubilo: Music for the Christmas season by Buxtehude and friends – Theatre of Voices, directed by Paul Hillier (DaCapo) Beautifully recorded in extremely hi-resolution, Hillier's fabled eight-person vocal ensemble, accompanied by a chamber ensemble of seven, sings a classic German program with refinement and polish. Hillier knows his voices, and these are superb. Recorded with enviable clarity and depth in Garnisonkirken, Copenhagen, this is one album where high-quality repertoire receives the treatment it deserves.

Christmas Songs from Germany & All Over the World, Vol. 2 (Genuin) As the largest concert choir within the German Broadcasting Authority, the 73 voices of MDR Leipzig Radio Choir have made close to 200 recordings since the choir was founded over 70 years ago. Considered "a supreme musical ambassador for Central Germany," its recent disc of Max Reger's Motets, Op. 110 won the 2017 International Classical Music Award. The multiculturalism of the choir's members (from 10 different countries) is reflected, in part, by selections from Japan, England, Portugal, Korea, USA, Italy, Finland, Russia, Venezuela, Norway, Sweden, the Bermudas, Armenia, and Denmark, as well as Deutschland. Many of the selections you'll encounter nowhere else. Some are simple and strophic, as in the opening "Macht hoch die Tuer" by an anonymous 17th-century composer. Alas, translations are only into German from other languages, and anyone who can understand the choir's English in Britten's "A Hymn to the Virgin" is more gifted than I. Regardless, with selections by Stravinsky, Palestrina, Lully, Stainer, Reger, Tchaikovsky, Nystedt, Handel, Schütz, and other gifted composers, vocal quality is very high.

Winter's Night: Skylark Vocal Ensemble (Skylark) An impeccably tuned vocal ensemble composed of leading American vocal soloists, chamber musicians, and music educators, Skylark has spent years performing the music of Hugh Distler (1908-42). A German composer whose faith was severely tried during the Nazi era, Distler committed suicide rather than be conscripted into the Nazi army. On this disc, recorded in the resonant acoustic of Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, MA, Distler's tonal settings have a fetching austerity and pristine beauty. Interspersed are several premiere recordings of other pieces, including Allegri's six-part "Salvatorem expectamus" and works by Nanino and de Mery. Fine singing, highly recommended.

Placido Domingo & Friends Celebrate Christmas in Vienna (Sony) For a big-boned contrast with Skylark, you need only turn to the full orchestral Christmas carol potpourri from the Vienna Symphony that begins this album. Recorded between 1992-2000 with the same orchestra and various conductors, it pairs the great tenor, then still singing tenor, with Vanessa Williams, Jose Carreras, Diana Ross, Charles Aznavour, Dionne Warwick, and Tony Bennett. If you're looking for crowd-pleasing familiar fare and can do without visuals, this one's for you.

Christmas with the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus (MF Fanfare Cincinnati) Yup, another one with big forces, this time with a chorus, conducted by Robert Porco and accompanied by an uncredited organist. If you want to sing along to familiar fare, just as you might in church, this would do just fine. Those looking for the shimmering purity of boy sopranos or classic German and English soprano sections, or searching beyond cliches, need look elsewhere.

Choral Music for Christmas (Carus) Classic fare, recorded between 1996-2015, with excellent German choruses and orchestra, that rings with authenticity. If you don't smile at the trumpets resounding in Zelenka's "Laudate pueri in D Major," or at Handel's "Hallelujah!" chorus performed by Kammerchor Stuttgart and Barockorchester Stuttgart under Frieder Bernius, or at the more intimate Calmus Ensemble singing Philip Lawson's "Hark! The herald angels sing," you probably should be in the streets protesting Christmastime consumerism. Distler's "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" surfaces again here, this time with the Athesinus Consort Berlin under Klaus-Martin Bresgott giving it a pristine treatment that goes deeper than Skylark's rendition.

Christmas at Steinway Hall: Simon Mulligan (Steinway & Sons) In case Hillier's is too holy for you, pianist Simon Mulligan is your man. Running all over the keys in New York's Steinway Hall, Mulligan performs "tasteful jazz arrangements" that are quite lovely and, when appropriate, filled with humor and good cheer. No surprises in the repertoire department, which is as popular as Cheerios and Snickerdoodles, and as at home in a lounge as by the proverbial fire. Ours is propane-fueled, but so what? Happy holidays.

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