While taking a break from the usual Classical fare for the holidays, I thought it might be fun to briefly review a few of my favorite holiday CDs, concentrating on professionally produced orchestral and choral releases.
Each year I like to ease into it, rather than jumping right in with Jingle Bells and the familiar santa tunes. Two of my favorite orchestral collections on the great Naxos label are just the ticket - "The Night Before Christmas" (2006) and "Another Night Before Christmas" (2011). Both contain at least one selection featuring a narrator, which I dutifully program my player to skip (they are simply intolerable). But the remaining tracks are wonderful, light-hearted orchestral originals and arrangements. Highlights include Liszt's Christmas Tree Suite (each CD containing different sections of it, with different orchestrators), and original creations by Philip Lane, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Adam Saunders and Angela Morley - all rarely found elsewhere. The recorded sound is consistently good, as are the performances, by the RTE and BBC Concert Orchestras, and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.
My favorite purely orchestral set, though, comes on an earlier 2002 Naxos CD, with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gavin Sutherland. These suites are symphonic in structure and sound wonderful in excellent recorded sound. I can listen to this disc all year long. It is worth noting the 5 substantial selections included here:
- Improvisations on Christmas Carols - Bryan Kelly
- A Carol Symphony - Victor Hely-Hutchinson
- Bethlehem Down - Pater Warlock
- Wassail Dances - Philip Lane
- A Christmas Carol Symphony - Patric Standford
This disc is worth it for the Hely-Hutchinson symphony alone. This wonderful piece was recorded decades earlier for EMI (1966) - played by the rough-and-ready Pro-Arte Orchestra. But this new recording is far more refined and vastly better played.
Next up are two newer Boston Pops collections, with Keith Lockhart conducting, featuring the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. The first disc, "Holiday Pops" (1998, BMG), includes Bass's Gloria, Angela Morley's Christmas Waltzes, wonderful arrangements of Carol of the Bells, Tomorrow is My Dancing Day, and a terrific choral version of Sleigh Ride. It concludes with John Williams's exuberant Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas! from the movie, Home Alone. The second disc, "Sleigh Ride" (2004, on the Pops' own label this time), provides a couple of selections with vocal soloists, which I'm not real fond of - particularly an ill-chosen Alfred Boe for O Holy Night, whose fast, insistent, intense vibrato does not suit this music. (Does it suit any music, for that matter?) But the rest is quite wonderful, including Leroy Anderson's original Sleigh Ride and an absolutely ravishing reading of Respighi's Adoration of the Magi (the second movement of his Three Botticelli Pictures). Another highlight is a wonderful new recording of Harry Simeone's setting of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (bringing back memories of the pioneering American choral groups, The Harry Simeone Chorale and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, from over 50 years ago). Both discs have fantastic recorded sound.
Next up is my favorite of Erich Kunzel's holiday recordings - his first one (1985) with the Rochester Pops Orchestra on ProArte. This one revives many selections that Arthur Fiedler made famous with his 1950s/60s RCA recordings (subsequently reissued on a 1994 Living Stereo CD, "Christmas Party"). As good as that RCA is - (they did an admirable job remastering it) - there is no denying the superior sound of ProArte's modern digital recording for Kunzel. It is, however, typical of that label - a bit too warm and rich, lacking sparkle, and requiring a BIG boost in the volume control knob. But once the ear adjusts, it's enormously fun.
Another orchestral treasure is found on a 1991 Sony Music Special Products CD, "The Nutcracker and Other Orchestral Favorites", with Charles Gerhardt conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. (Yes, THAT Charles Gerhardt!) It is fascinating to hear Gerhardt so mannered in the Nutcracker Suite. He reminds me of Stokowski with his free handling of some of the tempos and the outrageous application of rubato for maximum effect. And check out the over-the-top, flamboyant cadenza in Waltz of the Flowers, played by not one, but two harps! It is beyond rhapsodic; it's positively glamorous. I'm sure Tchaikovsky would not have approved, but Gerhardt has the ability to somehow make it all sound convincing. (Well, almost!) The rest of the program contains the ubiquitous Sleigh Ride and Skater's Waltz (played straight) and finishing with a cinematic suite of carols arranged by Peter Knight. Given this is a budget release, I was surprised to see it is a digital recording with great sound. It is a must for every collector, and a fond remembrance of the great Charles Gerhardt.
The best disc of full-scale symphonic arrangements for orchestra and chorus is surely the magnificent "A Festival of Carols", with Colin Davis conducting the LSO and the John Alldis Choir. Recorded in 1979 by Philips, it comes up sounding superb on CD - warm, clear, dynamic and bursting with orchestral color. These are almost operatic in scope and dramatic impact, sung with power and majesty by this choir, which is right at home in opera. The individual tracks play without pause, making for a stupendous, uninterrupted, 45-minute concert.
For fans of a cappella choir music, there is a glorious 2012 Eloquence disc titled, simply, "Christmas Carols", sung by Musica Sacra, conducted by its founder, Richard Westenburg. Pieces/parts of this set have appeared here and there on various Polygram/Universal miscellaneous collections over the years, but this Eloquence reissue contains the complete set of 27 tracks from the original 1990 DG digital recording. Based upon my sometimes faulty "audio memory", the Eloquence sounds more refined and warmer than I remember some of these sounding on earlier DG collections. Suffice it to say, this is among the most accomplished, professional and moving choral performances I've encountered. The recording is clear, focused and "present". It is a bit more up-front than many choral recordings which set the choir back within an over-reverberant, empty hall in an effort to achieve maximum blend and glow. Musica Sacra is an impressive example of American a cappella choral singing at its finest - full-bodied, with full, rich vibrato.
Another a cappella disc which one shouldn't be without is the "Complete Collection of The Alfred S. Burt Carols", featuring The Voices of Jimmy Joyce. I am baffled why this music is so rarely recorded, as a modern digital recording of them - in their original guise - is sorely needed. Thankfully we have this set from 1963, remastered in 1995 for TRO Hollis Music. The recorded sound is not ideal, though. It's clean, but tends to sound its age with an up-front perspective, being too closely mic'd. Once the ear adjusts, this works well enough most of the time; however on those carols which feature a soloist, Jimmy Joyce's forceful, raspy tenor is grating and unappealing. Fortunately, this occurs on just 3 tracks. These are modest (and familiar) arrangements, with the 3rd verse of each carol sung in Burt's original settings.
Sticking with choral music, one CD stands above all others. And it is one which provides that reverberant, distant, blended sound described above. None other provides more pleasure than this one from the incomparable Dale Warland Singers, on their 2002 Gothic Records album, "Christmas With..." Year after year, this is the disc I turn to for the ultimate Christmas experience. It is life-affirming in its sublime refinement and heartfelt expression of the season. There is no finer choral group on the planet for those qualities which we hold dear - blend, legato, phrasing, musical expression, breath control, perfect pitch, and a sense of ensemble. Now THIS is Christmas!