I’ve written previously of a delightful album organist E Power Biggs made for CBS called Music for a Merry Christmas, as available in a transfer from High Definition Tape Transfers (HDTT). This year HDTT has a second Biggs album called What Child Is This? and it’s as much of a charmer as the first. On this program Biggs plays in partner ship with the men of the Gregg Smith Singers, the Texas Boys Choir of Fort Worth, and the New York Brass and Percussion Ensemble. Gregg Smith conducts. When the boys sing with the men they in a sense make up an SATB choir.
The sound is crisp and clear with wide stereo separation. Though there are exceptions, the boys are usually in the left channel, the men in the right and the organ in the center. The percussion pop up all over the place. Though this recording is still available on CBS LP and Sony CD, HDTT has done an astonishingly good transfer of it, making it available in a wide variety of download formats as well as discs. The sound is so impressive that I’d go with their edition in spite of the extra cost. There’s alas no info on the organ used. It’s not one of those huge monsters with lots of subwoofer bass, but a brightly chirping instrument that has ultra bubbly, clean sound. Probably a Flentrop or something like that.
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.
Archiv Productions was founded in Germany in 1945 as a subsidiary label of Deutsche Grammophon. It’s purpose was to record older music in performances authentic to the periods covered. DG has already issued a box of CDs that was an overview of Archiv’s entire history. Now they have a new box which focuses in on the label’s stereo analogue recordings, made between 1959 and 1981. I think they’ve done a splendid job at hitting all the highlights. Karl Richter’s Bach recordings are represented by one of the cantatas and the Magnificat. Richter recorded around 75 of the cantatas and his approach was admired for its vigor, precision, and strength. August Wenzinger recorded Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks using a large wind band without strings, the way Handel originally wrote it for the first performance. Trevor Pinnock’s recording of the Bach Orchestral Suites, one of the first of many that Pinnock made for Archiv is here, as is Telemann’s Der Getreue Music-Meister.
Remarkable recordings by Charles Mackerrs, Simon Preston, and Helmut Walcha are all here along with many surprises, all pleasant ones. Archiv producers not only took great care with the arts and repertory for the label but also with the recorded sound. Every CD in this magnificent set is state-of-the-art for its day and most still hold that title up to present time. Each disc is in a cardboard sleeve that duplicates, on a smaller scale, the original vinyl album art work. You can see that in the beginning, it was the cream colored, plain sleeves that were all alike except of the artists and compositions. The label later went to silver with color inserts alternating with full color bordered in silver. They are all beautifully reproduced for this set. There’s an informative booklet delineating the entire series, complete with period photographs of the artists.
There’s not a clunker in this elegant set; it should be a much demanded gift item for the holiday season coming up in six months. But it is so appealing that if you bought it now, you’d probably want to keep it yourself.
Now that we’re well into the era of correct performance of Baroque music, it seems that there’s a new recording of Handel’s Messiah every year that vies for top position. And there have been some very good ones, led by Paul McCreesh, Anders Orhwall, William Christie, and Rene Jacobs, not to mention earlier pioneering efforts by Sir Charles Mackerras (a personal favorite), Richard Bonynge, Christopher Hogwood, and Sir Colin Davis. But this year’s live performance by Peter Dijkstra, the Chorus of the Bavarian Radio, and the B’Rock Belgian Baroque Orchestra Ghent goes right to top to ring the silver bell. Ding dong, five golden stars.
The soloists are all splendid – Julia Doyle, soprano; Lawrence Zazzo, counter tenor; Steve Davislim, tenor; and Neal Davies, bass. It’s the strongest roster, and certainly the most even, of any Messiah recording. The chorus is as good as you could hope to hear this side of heaven, and the instrumentalists do a lot more than “just accompany.” Tying everything together is conductor Dijkstra, who makes this the most convincing Messiah ever. Each soloist, every chorus member, every instrumental player seems aware of the words in such a way that the drama of the story of Christ is conveyed as scarcely before. Mackerras made an effort in this direction but his chorus was simply not as good as this one. Every single word is important to Dijkstra and his forces and though one is always aware of the genius of Handel, one also realizes that writer-editor Charles Jennnens, choosing words largely from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, also played a big part in the oratorio’s success.
The recorded sound, though taken at a live performance, is as ideal as the performance itself. Everything is clean and clear and has good presence and ideal balance. One presumes that there must have been thunderous applause at the end of this event, but it has been edited out from the recording where it might prove an intrusion on repeated hearing. And it’s for sure that this magnificent effort will receive many repeated hearings here. Messiah is often thought of as a Christmas work, but it is much an Easter and a universal one. If you get any money for Christmas, buy this recording and it will reward you ten fold.
Here are three additional choral releases for the holidays that will make your season a little brighter.
First up is Stile Antico’s lovely and spiritual A Wondrous Mystery – Renaissance Choral Music for Christmas. There’s no other word to describe this album adequately except to note that it’s sounds are simply divine. The 12-voice singing group has been together some time now and made a specialty of singing unaccompanied choral music. Their attacks and intonation are so perfect they seem to respond as one, not a dozen. It’ s a pure and effortless, if occasionally antiseptic sound that perfectly suits the music here – motets and anthems by Johannes Eccard, Hans Leo Hassler, and Michael Praetorious.
Praetorius (1560-1629) is the only composer featured on Christmas Vespers, an album from Cleveland’s early music ensemble Apollo’s Fire, singing here augmented by The Oberlin Choristers, The Children’s Chorus of St. Paul’s Church, and The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra. Much of Praetorius’ music was written for multiple antiphonal choirs and these were greatly varied, you might find one piece for chorus and two instrumental choirs or another for soloists, chorus, and one instrumental choir. On this album, music director Jeanette Sorrell comes up with wonderful combinations, that keep the music colorful and varied. The singing is not quite as polished as that of Stile Antico but it is more enthusiastic and appealing. One quibble, would that this multi ensemble effort had been issued in surround sound.
Yulefest! with the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge conducted by Stephen Layton brings us back to unaccompanied choral music but quite a different sound from that of Stile Antico. For one, the repertory is more modern than that of A Wondrous Mystery. Secular and religious songs are mixed almost at random so that you have “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” followed by “E’en so, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come.” And there’s a very odd and thoughtful arrangement of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” that has echoes of Vaughan Williams in it! The singing is glorious, warm and virtuoso. Due to the different nature of the compositions, you’ll either swear that you’re hearing the best collegiate chorale ever assembled or one of the best cathedral choirs.
The sound on all three discs is state of the art with good presence, definition, and warmth on all. If I could only buy one, I’d pick Apollo’s Fire, but all are worthy of serious consideration.