December 22, 2011


Noël. Westminster Choir conducted by Joe Miller. Westminster Choir College. $16.99.

Honegger: Une Cantate de Noël; Symphony No. 4, “Deliciae Basilienses”; Pastorale d’été. Christopher Maltman, baritone; New London Children’s Choir and London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. LPO. $16.99.

Chanticleer: Our Heart’s Joy; The Boy Whose Father Was God; Ludus Paschalis—The Resurrection Play of Tours; Out of This World!; Between Two Wars—The Art of the Comedian Harmonists. Chanticleer conducted by Matthew Oltman. Chanticleer Records. $16.99 each.

Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Dorothea Röschmann, soprano; Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; New York Choral Artists and New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert. Accentus DVD. $24.99.

     Although Christmas was taken over from the Roman Saturnalia, which in turn grew out of a long history of death-and-rebirth myths involving gods or their works dying off in winter and returning or being reincarnated in spring, the holiday became over the centuries the doctrinal birthday of Jesus and therefore, for Christians, one of the two holiest days of the year (the other being Easter, taken over from earlier spring festivals). Each year, the Christmas season produces an outpouring of well-intentioned, generally reverent and usually well-performed seasonal recordings of music written for the season or related to it in some way. The lovely Westminster Choir CD entitled simply Noël is a perfect example: 14 tracks, five of them traditional and the balance by such composers as Charpentier, Poulenc, Fauré and Gounod, all sung with beauty and heartfelt involvement and released on the choir’s own label. Latin and French are the languages here, with – among the highlights – lovely renditions of Josquin’s Ave Maria, Poulenc’s O Magnum Mysterium and the Sanctus from Fauré’s Requiem. This is a beautifully sung disc that, because of its focus, may not be played very often in other seasons; but it should bring a sense of warmth and comfort whenever it is heard.

     There is music for and also beyond the Christmas season on a new LPO recording of works by Arthur Honegger (1892-1955). Honegger’s final composition was a contemplative one, entirely worthy of its seasonal theme: Une Cantate de Noël. From its opening De profundis clamavi to its concluding Laudate Dominum, this is a work that speaks directly and movingly to the religious underpinnings of the modern Christmas holiday. Yet it is interestingly non-modern in several ways, not only in language but also in expressiveness – a characteristic sometimes thought to have been given short shrift by Honegger and other members of the Parisian “Les Six” of the 1920s. Heartfelt and warm, this Christmas contemplation shows a lyrical side of Honegger that may surprise, and delight, listeners who know only some of his more experimental and acerbic music. Indeed, this entire CD, recorded live at London Philharmonic concerts in 2007 and 2009, shows a rather unfamiliar side of Honegger. The Symphony No. 4, “Delights of Basel,” is nostalgic and warm, a tribute to the sanctuary that the Swiss-born Honegger found Basel to be during World War I. And the best-known piece here, Pastorale d’été (“Summer Pastoral”), takes the wintertime Christmas spirit to the opposite time of year with lyricism and dreamlike expression. Vladimir Jurowski conducts with clarity and understanding, the choruses and baritone Christopher Maltman sing with sensitivity and fine expressiveness, and the disc as a whole is attractive both for its seasonal elements and for those that transcend the time of year and show a less-known side of a significant 20th-century composer.

     Five new CDs from the highly versatile Chanticleer “orchestra of voices” (as the group sometimes calls itself) go even further into seasonal depth – and beyond it. Our Heart’s Joy is close to the Westminster Choir CD in approach and sensibility. Its 21 tracks include anonymous Basque, Spanish and English songs, plus works by Praetorius, Britten, and Andrea Gabrieli – as well as a medley of Christmas spirituals, and a final, very moving version of Silent Night. Chanticleer’s voices always blend beautifully, and the soloists are equally good no matter who they are. The group is smooth, accomplished and elegant in its presentation, even if the structure of this CD is nothing very special. The Boy Whose Father Was God, though, is special, being presented as “a musical re-telling of the life of one of the most influential figures in history, Jesus of Nazareth.” That is an interesting description for an unusually intriguing disc, which does not simply assume that listeners are the Christian faithful, seeking familiar and reassuringly uplifting music. In fact, all the works on this CD are relatively modern: the oldest composer heard here is Kodály, while other pieces are by Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt and still others – three of them – were commissioned by Chanticleer as recently as 2010. The story moves, both in narrative and in music, from “The boy is born” to “A faith is created,” with intermediate sections called “The man calls his followers,” “The Jew rebels,” “Beliefs collide,” and “The followers mourn.” These are scarcely standard biblical titles or typical references to the life of Jesus and the founding of the Catholic Church. Chanticleer’s sweet singing and effective emoting are here placed at the service of storytelling, and the unfamiliarity of the music helps pulls listeners into an often-told tale in a new and attractive way. The disc may be too untraditional for institutionally committed Christians and too traditional in Christian outlook for others, but it is a most interesting experiment in telling the story of Jesus in a way that has not been attempted before.

     A much, much older version of the story of Jesus, dating to the 10th century, Ludus Paschalis: The Resurrection Play of Tours is an Easter story rather than a Christmas one, but Christmas and Easter, like the winter and spring festivals on which they are based, are two parts of a single whole, and it is actually fascinating to hear this CD immediately after listening to The Boy Whose Father Was God. Chanticleer brings the same devotion and intensity to both CDs, and is as much at home in the thousand-year-old work as in the contemporary one – testimony to the amazing versatility of this group. Ludus Paschalis is truly a play, using non-biblical texts as well as music to tell its story. The work is incomplete – this version was put together by Frederick Renz, who is Chanticleer’s guest director for the occasion. The music drama will be of greatest interest to committed Christians and listeners who enjoy very early music indeed; certainly it helps put Christmas celebrations in a larger context. The context expands in a different way in a disc called Out of This World! Here Chanticleer starts with strictly Christian music by Palestrina, Andrea Gabrieli, Monteverdi and Britten, then moves into works that combine a more secular attitude with a certain otherworldly bent – including the title song, which is by Harold Arlen, Observer in the Magellanic Cloud by Mason Bates, and Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. This is an odd agglomeration of material, the juxtapositions somewhat on the weird side, the overall purpose or approach of the CD not entirely clear. Everything, though, is sung with Chanticleer’s usual clarity, poise and style – as indeed is the much lighter CD (for Christmas season or any season) called Between Two Wars. This too is something of an oddball collection of music, and not everything here dates to the era between World War I and World War II: there is a setting of the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, for example, and even versions of Boccherini’s famous Menuett and Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5. This CD is mostly a celebration of vocalizing for its own sake, with a kind of devil-may-care willingness to toss out Tea for Two, Cole Porter’s Night and Day, Duke Ellington’s Creole Love Call and Harold Arlen’s Stormy Weather amid tracks sung in German. The CD is something of a romp and, as such, far more upbeat than most Christmas releases; indeed, despite its appearance at this time of year, it is not a Christmas disc at all, having been recorded live in August 2002. For those looking for something less serious this season – but still very well sung and celebratory of the quality of Chanticleer’s skilled vocalists – Between Two Wars may be just the thing.

     There are, of course, wars going on right now; and Christmas can be a time to wish for peace and remember the many barriers to it. It can therefore be an especially appropriate time to listen, or re-listen, to the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony, performed for the 10th anniversary of the terrorist murders of September 2001 and now available on DVD. Recorded live at Avery Fisher Hall on the evening of September 10, with visuals sensitively directed by Michael Beyer, the DVD is a monument to remembrance and to the difficult and still-in-progress resurrection of the area where the World Trade Center towers once stood. The DVD includes interviews with conductor Alan Gilbert, New York Philharmonic President Zarin Mehta, and members of the audience, making the whole thing a communal experience. This is one of those performances whose occasion clearly lent grandeur and intensity to the musicians: the famously fractious New York Philharmonic plays glowingly, and the soloists and chorus sing with warmth and intensity in a reading that perhaps places overmuch emphasis on the choral portions of the finale but that does so in a very worthy cause. Mahler had unconventional views of resurrection, altering the Friedrich Klopstock text he selected for this symphony and writing quite a few of the words himself; and somehow that makes the work all the more appropriate for a 10th-anniversary memorial concert, whether heard at the time of the performance or during the Christmas season’s promise, at least for some, of resurrection on a different basis. Scarcely a Christmas recording, yet oddly right for the season, Gilbert’s performance of Mahler’s Second is quite worthy in itself, and even more so in the context of a season that bears within it…as winter always does with relation to spring…the promise of new life to come.

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