There are always abundant choral holiday albums each and every year and many of them are excellent, but this year one towers over all the others. That one is Carolae – Music for Christmas , performed by the Westminster Williamson Voices chorus of Princeton, NJ, conducted by James Jordan with Daryl Robinson on organ, along with brass, percussion and other instrumental forces. There are some lovely arrangements here and a concluding Toccata on Vom Himkmel Hoch for solo organ written by Garth Edmundson that positively sizzles, but the main interest is Missa carolae by award winning composer James Whitbourn. The Six-movement work is interspersed with other arrangements and uses familiar carols in ways one might not expect but sound absolutely appropriate. Using drums and other
percussion, Whitbourn turns many a well known tune into an exciting processional – drum carols on steroids. The overall result is appealing, urgent, uplifting, and downright thrilling. Every single one of the singers and instrumentalists give their all. Eacn seems to be a virtuoso but is able to fit inconspicuously into a solid ensemble. The recording is a marvel. Every detail is easily heard and the tuttis, with their subwoofer friendly bass will lift you to the heights! Honest. The CD is offered at bargain rates by using the link above. Click that and bring some real majesty into your holiday listening.
There don’t seem to be quite as many new instrumental albums for the holidays as usual, but there are a couple of really good ones. The first is on the Naxos label and features the English brass ensemble, Septura. The album’s title is Christmas with Septura, and it contains a generous 22 tracks. Septura has a rich and robust sound and is made up of seven musicians – 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, and tuba. Notably no French horns. Much of the music is arranged from Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, but there
are some familiar carols as well – “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” and “Silent Night” among them. The mix between slower, sonorous tunes and fleet, virtuoso ones seems ideal and the recorded sound is just right to give one detail with an abundance of warmth.
The second CD comes from the ATMA Classique label and features the Canadian chamber orchestra, Les Violons du Roy conducted by Bernard Labadie in a program called Simphonies des Noel. It is actually a re-release of Labadie’s first album for ATMA Classique. Les Violons du Roy is based in Quebec City and specializes in correctly informed performances of music from the Baroque Era.
The musicians give spirited dance-like readings of the two “Christmas Concertos” by Giuseppe Torelli and Arcangelo Corelli which relate more closely to the story of shepherds keeping watch than do other performances. Trraveling from Italy to France, Labadie leads idiomatic and appealing performances of Christmas music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, stopping by Germany to play some fine Nativity music by Fux. The recording is superb – sounding exactly as a small orchestra of strings with two recorders added should sound. The tuttis are exceptionally clear. It’s really good to have this delightful one back!
When I was in college, the most of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker that you heard was the famliar suite. Then there was a London recording conducted by Anatole Fistoulari that had the familiar suite plus a second suite. George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet revived the entire ballet as a Christmas holiday treat and the complete recordings by Ernest Ansermet and Artur Rodzinski came out, in stereo no less. What a revelation it was to find so much superlative music that had been passed over in constructing the suites. Now there are dozens of recordings of the complete ballet and new recordings of the suite are few and far between. This year there’s a new one of the complete ballet from Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra and in covering that I discovered a fine one on one disc that I’d previously missed.
The Gergiev is one of the works of a curious pairing coupling the ballet with the composer’s Symphony No. 4. Gergiev gives his usual intense reading of each, which is particularly successful in the symphony. This is one of the greatest 4ths in the catalog now, not only surpassing the conductor’s own cavernous effort with the Vienna Philharmonic, but 95 percent of the other recordings as well. The Nutcracker fares nearly as well. Recordings by Ansermet, Rodzinski, and Roshdestvensky still come out on top, but this one is not far behind. The sound is lush and sonorous. I especially love the reedy clarinets and sumptuous cello section. Tempos are a little slower than usual at times, more akin to what is usually danced than what is usually recorded. But these are never too slow or ponderous, since Gergiev has such a handle on the music’s inner rhythms.
The two years older recording (2014) I discovered is by Neeme Jarvi and the Bergen Philharmonic. Incredibly enough, it is contained on one CD with a running time of a bit over 84 minutes. Tempos are brisk but one never has the feeling they were juiced up just to make single disc possible. Jarvi is a touch more lyrical with melodies than Gergiev and the orchestral timbres are just a tad leaner…and sweeter. In a nutshell, Gergiev seeks the drama in the score, Jarvi the lyricism. If you check out the sale and used items on Amazon.com you can no doubt afford both, which isn’t such a bad idea given the popularity of the composition. Both recordings are available as downloads from Naxos or as exceptionally good sounding SACD discs.
I mentioned Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances a few days ago in covering the new recording of the Slavonic Rhapsodies on Pentatone SACD. Then along comes a new release of the dances on a fine Decca CD with Jiri Belohlavek leading the Czech Pilharmonic Orchestra. The same conductor and orchestra released a highly regarded set of Dvorak’s symphonies and
not too long long ago, so one is primed to find this current release appealing. And it surely is, the Czech Philharmonic players have this music in their DNA,as does Belohlavek. The recording is big and sumptuous with quite a bit of reverb. It produces a grand sound, but not an exceptionally transparent one. If you like your Dvorak big, you’ll go for it.
Covering familiar fair such as this causes reviewers to go scrambling through other recordings and in this case both those conducted by Rafael Kubelik and George Szell are still strong, but a recent discovery of a BIS recording by Leif Segerstam and the Rheinland-Pfalz State Symphony leads me to believe that it might be the best of all. The conductor’s readings are by turn energetic thoughtful, and idiomatic, always dance like,
and the BIS engineering team didn’t miss a single nuance. The recording is warm yet so very detailed that not a single small detail of Dvorak’s brilliant orchestration goes unheard. Assuming you have the classic Kubelik or Szell recordings, I’d say go with the Segerstam and factor in the Belohlavek if you can afford two.
Collections of classical music appropriate to Halloween have been spotty over the past few years. First recommendations would be the classic collections conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson and Eiji Oue, both still sonic adventures and artistic wonders. This year Decca has added Danse Macabre, a collection by Kent Nagano and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal. This is the same ensemble with which Decca made so many memorable recordings conducted by Charles Dutoit. Nagano is now music director and Decca apparently intends to keep recording. In addition to the usual fare – Danse Macabre, Night on Bald Mountain, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it includes three rarities – Dvorak’s The Noonday Witch, Balakirev’s Tamara, and Ives’ Halloween. The latter is merely a curiosity,
mostly of interest to aficionados, but the other two are major compositions worthy of interest. The Dvorak is a chilling musical tale of a mother who calls forth a demon to quiet her noisy child only to have her gruesome wish come true. The Balakirev tells the story of a malevolent spirit who lures men to her castle only to dispatch them in horrible ways. Nagano’s performances are ultra smooth but a bit bloodless at times; the French horns seem to be recessed a bit in the mix and that possibly has a lot to do with the polite attitude. Still, the disc does have the two unusual repertory choices and the playing is refined and of virtuoso caliber. The Gibson and Oue discs also have singular works on them (Arnold and Franck, respectively) so you really must have all three releases for a fairly complete classical Halloween, not to mention some larger works by Berlioz, Boito, and Gounod, etc. Maybe I will get around to those next year. Happy haunting.