December 24, 2008


Bach: Cantatas for the Nativity, BWV 61, 122, 123 and 182. Charles Daniels, tenor; Monika Mauch, soprano; Harry van der Kamp, bass; Matthew White, countertenor; Montréal Baroque conducted by Eric Milnes. ATMA Classique. $16.99 (SACD).

Assisi Christmas Cantatas: Music of Alessandro Melani, Nicola Antonio Porpora, Fra Francesco Maria Benedetti, Fra G.M. Po del Finale, Fra Ferdinando Antonio Lazzari and Arcangelo Corelli. Ruth Ziesek, soprano; Reinhold Friedrich, trumpet; Ingeborg Danz, contralto; L’Arte del Mondo conducted by Werner Ehrhardt. Phoenix Edition. $16.99.

Scandinavian Christmas: Music of Jean Sibelius, Leevi Madetoja, Gustaf Nordqvist, Otto Kotilainen and Ruben Liljefors; Traditional Songs. Synve Lundgren, soprano; Johanna Fernholm, contralto; Christian Gurtner, traverso; Wolfgang Kogert, organ; Markus Vorzellner, piano. Phoenix Edition. $16.99.

O Nata Lux: Choral Chamber Works by Alejandro Carillo, Seth Garrepy, Eric Whitacre, Peter Matthews, Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Rathbone. Musica Intima. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

The Gospel Christmas Project. Jackie Richardson, Alana Bridgewater, Kellylee Evans, Chris Lowe and Sharon Riley and Faith Chorale, vocalists. CBC Records. $16.99.

Leroy Anderson: Sleigh Ride & Other Holiday Favorites. BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $8.99.

     The Christmas season invariably brings forth innumerable retreads of familiar religious and worldly songs, and the days and weeks after Christmas just as invariably consign most of the repackagings to the nearest dustbin – or at least to the closet or attic, to be dragged out (perhaps) in a later year. Yet some Christmas-themed CDs are more deserving of year-round attention than others – with recordings of Bach at the top of the list. It scarcely matters at what time of year a person listens to Bach’s Weinachtsoratorium (“Christmas Oratorio”) – or the four cantatas beautifully performed by Montréal Baroque on a new ATMA Classique SACD. This is timeless music in the best sense, rising above Bach’s own era to involve and move listeners 300-plus years in the future. And the same is true of some of the pieces on Assisi Christmas Cantatas. Many pieces on this CD are not cantatas at all, including the framing ones: Alessandro Melani’s Sonata à 5 is a simple and lovely work for two trumpets, two violins and continuo, while Corelli’s G minor Concerto Grosso Fatto Per la Notte di Natale, Op. 8, No. 6, is not to be confused with his better-known “Christmas Concerto” (which, confusingly, is in the same key and is Op. 6, No. 8) – but it is equally heartfelt and emotionally satisfying. So are the cantatas and motets offered in between the instrumental works, with Oh Quam Jubilat by the virtually unknown Fra G.M. Po del Finale (ca. 1700) especially interesting for its use of two trumpets in addition to soprano, alto and basso continuo. These are works that will give musical pleasure at any time of year.

     Scandinavian Christmas is more closely tied to the season, although its traditional songs of the region are certainly different from those with which North Americans are familiar – and hearing the works sung in Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Danish lends the CD an exotic air. But even with three songs by Sibelius included, plus works by several other notable Scandinavian composers, there is a monochromatic feeling to the disc that makes it more a seasonal curiosity than a CD likely to be played all year. O Nata Lux is even more of a Christmas-only CD, despite the lovely singing of the Vancouver-based 12-voice chamber ensemble, Musica Intima. Songs in English, French and Latin all get sensitive, well-balanced and emotive treatment here, but the music is unlikely to seem inspirational except when associated with the time of year for which it is intended.

     The Gospel Christmas Project is also intended just for a specific season, but the vocals here are unusual and interesting enough so this CD just might get a few additional plays at other times. The 17 tracks are mostly jazz-inflected, although there is plenty of gospel swing to them as well – and the very familiarity of such songs as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” makes these arrangements more attractive specifically because they are atypical. Throw in an organ interlude and a rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah and you have an unusual CD that keeps the spirit of the holiday but gives its music more bounce than usual.

     For the most bounce of all, though, a disc that really ought to be played throughout the year is Naxos’ Leroy Anderson compilation, a CD as secular as Bach’s cantatas are sacred. It consists of tracks taken from the first four volumes of the company’s ongoing release of Anderson’s complete orchestral works. Anderson was a clever composer and a better one than critics often realized: he neatly bridged the classical and popular-music worlds of his time, and even stayed on top of what was then the field’s primary technology by writing pieces that would fit on a single side of a 78-rpm record. Sleigh Ride & Other Holiday Favorites includes not only the title tune (probably Anderson’s most famous piece) and his three suites of carols (for brass, woodwinds and strings), but also Horse and Buggy, Song of the Bells, A Christmas Festival, The Golden Years and China Doll – plus two delicious short-form works, The Waltzing Cat and Bugler’s Holiday. Not all these pieces are specifically seasonal, and that is all to the good, since the lack of total tie-in to Christmas may encourage listeners to hear this Anderson CD throughout the year – and maybe buy some others, too. Anderson’s music is fun, and fun is something that ought not to be seasonal.

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