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.
It’s hard to cherry pick and put into digest form a career so long and varied as that of Indian born conductor Zubin Mehta. He’s had major stints as music director with such prestigious orchestras as the Montreal Symphony, The Los Angeles Philharmonic, The New York Philharmonic, and the Israel Philharmonic, as well as numerous opera companies. The venerable maestro is now 80 years old, so he’s been around some time. Decca was faced with the task of picking his recordings for that label made slightly before, during, and slightly after his tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic: 1962-1978. During his time in California he built the already good ensemble up to world class and helped it to have name recognition from the numerous recordings for the Decca label, the label where Mehta had made early, successful recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic.
I would been fine with a box of all Los Angeles recordings but Decca has opted to take many of those out and replace them with recordings made in Vienna, Israel, and one from New York. So you won’t find the superlative L A recordings of Holst’s The Planets (the best of all of Mehta’s LA recordings), John Williams Star Wars, Nielsen’s 4th symphony, or the plethora of Ives, Copland, and Gershin recordings. You will find from L A the sturdy, exciting, yet sometime pedantic complete Tchaikovsky Symphony recordings, Sweeping romantic readings of Dvorak’s 8th 9th symphonies, and the first-rate, near definitive recordings of the Richard Strauss tone poems – Also Sprach Zarathustra, An Alpine Symphony, Ein Heldenleben (this one five stars for me), and the Domestic Symphony. You will find his magnificent, warm and wonderful reading of Bruckner’s 9th symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, a stupendous, one of the top-three, performance of Mahler’s second symphony, and the New York Philharmonic in an exciting Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. With the Israel Philharmonic you’ll get all of the Schubert Symphonies, plus Rosamunde in performances that are sturdy but don’t sparkle enough to make them first choices, and near perfect readings of Tchaikovsky’s music from Swan Lake and Nutcracker from the same source.
One thing in common for all of the recordings: Decca’s amazing 70s recorded sound, microphoned from the conductor’s point of view. Most exciting and overall a big thrill. The low price makes this a set to consider since there are no complete missteps and many towering triumphs.
Gee, am I having fun going back through the catalog titles of such cool audiophile labels as Chandos, the British label that has recorded so many premieres yet finds time to do sterling sessions of more familiar fare. I stumbled on their double-disc Dukas disc which contains most of the composers output for orchestra and solo piano. Dukas was very exacting and destroyed much of his work before it could be published. It is one of music’s great mysteries as to what those scores might have been. We do know that several operas and tone poems were scrapped. It seems odd for a man who penned one of the best known tone poems in the orchestral lexicon, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Thanks to Fantasia, Leopold Stokowski, and Mickey Mouse, this work is know to thousands who might not usually absorb classical music.
Yan Pascal Tortelier’s reading of this familiar piece with the Ulster Symphony is dramatic, colorful, and immaculately recorded. Even without Mickey on screen, one can imagine the lazy apprentice conjuring up a spell to have the broom tote the water buckets to fill the cistern, then see proceedings stop when the broom is chopped in two. Then the anguish as the screams of French horns and trumpets announce an army of brooms that gets completely out of control. Tortelier has rapidly become one of my two or three favorite versions. The double-disc Chandos reissue offers the colorful dance piece La Peri with its scintillating fanfare (successfully taken at a rapid clip by Tortelier), a sole symphony, and the Wagnerian style overture Polyeucte. But I discovered that you can buy the orchestral music on two separate CDs, available in used condition for a penny and not much more on Amazon.com. I’ve printed the cover of one of them here. You can find the discs at Amazon.com, the downloads at ClassicsOnlineHD.
I love American music! American composers have contributed some of the most energetic, buoyant, and socially significant compositions of all time. It was a marvelous event, then, to be introduced to two composers I’d not known prior to hearing the two discs of their music that arrived within three days of each other.
Walter Saul (b. 1954) has written two compositions that are extremely relevant this November. One is Kiev 2014: Rhapsody for Oboe and Orchestra, which goes right along with today’s headline that terrorists have destroyed electrical equipment that put Crimea in the dark. Saul’s piece portrays the strife of current events in Ukraine’s largest city and it is fittingly played in virtuoso style by oboist Ron-Huey Liu and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Theodore Kuchar, an American maestro who was the orchestra’s music director from 1994-2004. Christmas is almost upon us again, and the Naxos disc also contains Saul’s 1992 Christmas Symphony. This is a charming enough work, using no familiar holiday tunes, but for my money the “hit” of this disc is the blazing Overture for the Jubilee from 1997. It’s virtuoso trumpet fanfares would start any concert off with a convincing and satisfying bang.
Cedille, the Chicago based record label, sent a disc of orchestral music by American composer Stacy Garrop, played with amazing conviction and finesse by the Chicago College of Performing Arts Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra, conducted respectively by Alondra de la Parra and Markand Thakar. The main piece is the Mythology Symphony, a five movement work that depicts Medusa, Penelope, the Sirens, the Fates, and Pandora. I loved its post romantic sweep and dramatic lyricism but was even more impressed by the shorter Thunderwalker, which depicts the ritual, invocation, and summoning, of a mythic god. Garrop’s orchestration is stunning. She really understands all the instruments of the orchestra. The writing for percussion and brass instruments stands withe the best ever written.
The Naxos recording is excellent, the Cedille recording of demonstration caliber.
Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918) was a composer who loved to use grand features and sweeping statements to create a sense of grandeur that influenced a number of English composers and started the style of British pomp and circumstance. He composed music in many genres but is perhaps best remembers for his magnificent choral anthems and oratorios, many of which are to be found on a stunning new CD featuring the Choir of Westminster Abbey, with the Onyx Brass, and organist Daniel Cook, all conducted by James O’Donnell.
The popular Jerusalem, I was Glad, and Blest Pair of Sirens all receive passionate readings, virtually on fire with no emotion held back. Hear my words, ye people presents a particularity fine solo by bass Jonathan Brown, and the Magnificat from the Great Service has a quartet of equally distinguished soloists in addition to the well as the chorus and organ. The choruses sings with spirit, precision, and amazing tone, the excellent organ playing of Daniel Cook is rewarded with an organ solo spot – the Fantaisa and Fugue in G. The Onyx Brass adds extra thrills and sonority on three tracks. I’ve heard many recordings from Westminster Abbey, but none that so accurately reproduces the size of it as this one. The reverb time is great, the organ pedal notes awesome and resonate, yet there is great clarity up front as well. An outstanding recording in just about every way.