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!
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.
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.
Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are among the composer’s most colorful and upbeat compositions and over the years just about everyone has had a go at them, not always with stellar results. I remember a near disastrous set with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony where piano was used in the continuo rather than harpsichord. But more often, the results were splendid and we have a large number of excellent recordings, using both modern and authentic instruments. My favorite with modern instruments is Benjamin Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. On period instruments, this new one by Florilegium on Channel Classics hybrid multichannel SACD goes at the top of the list. This set contains fleet performances that are at the same time scholarly informed and passionately performed. The layout is a little different than usual so as to go, on each disc, from simple instrumentation to most complex, thus disc 1 -concertos 6, 5, 4; disc 2-concertos 3, 2, 1. It works for me.
All of the Florilegium readings are breezy and bright – happy Bach, if you will. The harpsichord playing of Terence Charlston in the fifth concerto is virtuoso and musical; the trumpet playing of Richard Fomison is the same, and the horns in the first concerto are absolutely thrilling. It’s like taking the best parts of all the other period instrument performances and putting them on the same discs. The recorded sound has a lot to do with this set’s success. Not only are these the best period instrument performances, they are recorded in the best sound of any set. The CD layer is excellent, but the SACD is a marvel. The recordings were made in St. John the Evangelist Church in Norwood, England, which is apparently a rather reverberant structure. The two channel CD version mixes some of that sound back into the front to slightly muddy it, but the multichannel SACD layer keeps it in the surround channels so that the front channels are transparent and crystal clear. Warmth and clarity combined – a winner.