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.
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!
This time posting there are two new Blu-ray Nutcrackers under consideration. One will delight and the other will leave a bad taste in your mouth. The dubious and bad one first, a production of the Staatskapelle Berlin featuring its orchestra and corps de ballet conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Credit where it’s due, Barenboim leads a wonderful orchestral performance with outstanding woodwind playing and rich and sonorous strings. But as delightful as things are in the pit, they are quite different on stage. Choreographer Patrice Bart has decided, in trying to get closer to the original E. T. A. Hoffman story, to make the ballet a psychological coming of age drama married to a power control trip. The character of Herr Drosselmeyer (Oliver Matz) has been given a new prominence and the point that he is in charge like a puppet master is mercilessly
hammered home, especially in the finale where the characters shuffle off stage looking misplaced extras from Michael Jackson’s Thriller. To add salt to the wounds, the production is somewhat colorless and drab. Still there are a few high moments, including the incredible dancing of Nadja Saidakova and Vladimir Malakhov in the second act “Pas de Deux,” a sequence so stunning in artistry that it almost makes up for the rest. Audio and video quality are just fine. Perhaps you could rent it, just to see that wonderful “Pas de Deux.”
In 1954, George Balanchine and the New York City Opera were chief among the pioneering groups that made The Nutcracker a holiday favorite now danced by every company in the land during December. The film released this year by the C Major label is the 2011 production and it’s a beauty from beginning to end. The party in the first act is festive, the transformation scene, with its tree that grows from 12 to 40 feet, is magical, as is the rest of
the production up to the end which finds Marie and her prince transported to the stars in a reindeer pulled sleigh. The dancing is first rate throughout and the orchestra plays admirably well, led by maestra Clotilde Otranto, who chooses fairly brisk tempos throughout. These never seem rushed nor do they seem to pose any problems for the dancers. Overall this is a five star production with state of the arts video and audio reproduction. Not to be missed.
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.