October 23, 2014


Mediæval Bæbes: Of Kings and Angels—A Christmas Carol Collection. QOS (Queen of Sheba). $12.98.

Suzie LeBlanc: La Veillée de Noël. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Christmas in Harvard Square. The Boys of St. Paul’s Choir School conducted by John Robinson. Decca. $18.99.

Season’s Greetings—The Allentown Band. Allentown Band conducted by Ronald Demkee. Allentown Band. $14.99.

John Tavener: Ypakoë; …Depart in Peace; Trisagion; Two Hadiths of the Prophet Mohammed. Linn Records. $19.99.

Missa Conceptio tua: Medieval and Renaissance Music for Advent. Schola Antiqua of Chicago conducted by Michael Alan Anderson. Naxos. $9.99.

Madrigals of Madness. Calmus Ensemble. Carus. $18.99.

     Every year, the approach of Christmas provides singers and listeners alike with chances to revisit familiar seasonal musical territory and, at times, explore some less-known works that tie into winter and its holidays. Many recordings are released for this purpose, and these days almost all of them are high-quality in both performance and sound, their only inherent flaw being a determined seasonal focus that makes it unlikely they will be listened to very often (if at all) at other times of the year. Two entirely typical examples are the new Mediæval Bæbes collection of Christmas carols on the QOS label and soprano Suzie LeBlanc’s almost entirely French-language release for ATMA Classique. The Mediæval Bæbes CD is distinguished not only by fine singing but also by accompaniments that render even familiar carols such as We Three Kings, Good King Wenceslaus, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Silent Night unusual and exotic in sound. The arrangements, done mainly by the group’s founder, Katharine Blake, include folk instruments such as saw and hurdy-gurdy along with decidedly old-fashioned recorders, lyres and violas da gamba. Most of the 17 accompaniments are simple and straightforward, allowing the vocals to be the center of attention throughout. The medieval elements are especially appropriate for such carols as Gaudete, Veni Veni Emmanuel, In Dulci Jubilo and the Corpus Christi Carol, but they are attractive in the more-modern, English-language works as well. Listeners will find the words and tunes familiar but the ambiance unusual here – a pleasing combination of well-worn and less-known elements. On the LeBlanc disc, English speakers will find fewer items that they recognize – even the two pieces sung in English, Up and down the southern shore and Sir Symon the King, are scarcely household tunes. The rest of the 16 tracks are in French, and while some of the works will be known to English speakers (such as Les Trois Mages as We Three Kings), most will not be. That means this CD provides an enjoyable opportunity to hear well-sung versions of Christmas music quite different from the everyday: La Veillée (“The Vigil”), O Dieu l’étrange chose (“Oh God, the strange thing”), Plus on est de fous, plus on rit (“The More the Merrier,” sung in two separate versions), and many others. The individual items are not especially distinguished and will not likely supplant more-familiar Christmas music for English speakers, but they supplement better-known carols very well and offer, through this sincere and attractively performed CD, some interesting cross-cultural opportunities that nations such as Canada take for granted in a way that the United States does not.

     English speakers, whether in Canada, the United States or elsewhere, will take more immediately to the almost-angelic purity of the voices of the Boys of St. Paul’s Choir School, whose Christmas in Harvard Square presents 19 works that pass from sacred to secular, Latin to English, familiar to unfamiliar, without apparent difficulty and without any apparent increase or diminution of enthusiasm. John Robinson leads O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and Ding Dong Merrily on High with beauty and fervor, and the 25 boys just as enthusiastically sing Omnes de Saba venient, Mater ora filium, Puer natus est, and Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree. A work from the Matins of Christmas fits as well here as a traditional Irish melody and a piece using the words of Christina Rossetti. Indeed, the weakness of this Decca CD is that all the music gets the same treatment, with little regard for the styles or approaches of the different periods in which it was written; but some listeners will consider this a strength rather than a weakness, since the singing is uniformly lovely throughout and all the music comes across with suitable beauty, dedication and that ineffable Christmas spirit. Christmas in Harvard Square is something of a “souvenir” disc – it feels like the sort of takeaway one purchases after attending a particularly enjoyable live performance – and while it will have little staying power beyond from the Christmas season, it is a CD that will surely receive multiple uses during the season from anyone who enjoys these fine, clear young voices and their well-modulated approach to all the pieces on display here.

     Listeners who prefer instrumental recognition and celebration of Christmas – and Hanukkah as well – will enjoy the 17th volume in a series called “Our Band Heritage,” featuring the Allentown Band and released on the ensemble’s own label. Ronald Demkee leads the band in 13 works both spirited and spiritual: Leroy Anderson’s A Christmas Festival and Sleigh Ride, Percy Faith’s Brazilian Sleigh Bells, an arrangement of Victor Herbert’s March of the Toys from Babes in Toyland and one of the traditional Carol of the Birds, plus Moravian, Celtic, French and Russian Christmas music – the last sampling of these being quite extended and featuring fine organ playing by George Boyer. The Hanukkah offering, called Eighth Candle, is performed with as much sensitivity and care as the Christmas works, and the disc as a whole – which was recorded in 2002 – has plenty of verve and spirit to mark the season, providing a well-chosen combination of tunes that will be familiar to almost everyone and ones that few will know. The Allentown Band, which first performed in 1828 and is the oldest civilian concert band in the United States, performs both the transcriptions and the original works for band with smoothly honed skill and a fine sense of rhythm and flair – even when the music itself is not of very considerable consequence.

     For something significant and truly unusual within the overall Christmas ethos, listeners can turn to a new Linn Records CD of music by Sir John Tavener (1944-2013). None of the four works here relates directly to the Christmas season, but all possess a sense of ethereality and reaching-out in a spiritual context that fit the season very well – even when they draw on non-Christian religious traditions, as does Two Hadiths of the Prophet Mohammed. This motet, for two sopranos, two altos and Renaissance bray harp (an instrument with a drone-bass sound quite different from what a modern harp produces), is performed by Canty, the group that co-commissioned it and gave the first performance in 2008. The Hadiths, which are sayings attributed to Mohammed, reach across religious fault lines in a spirit that seems apt for Christmastime: I was a hidden treasure, And I longed to be known, So I created the world; and God is a beautiful being, And He loves beauty. The emotional communication of the piece is direct and clear. So is that of …Depart in Peace, which Tavener dedicated to the memory of his father and which has a meditative, ethereal quality entirely appropriate for a fond remembrance. It combines the Nunc dimittis (“Now you dismiss,” from the gospel of Luke) with Alliuatic antiphons, focusing the soprano, violin, tampura (a long-necked Indian drone instrument) and cellos on beauty through hypnotic segment repetition, ending in a chant that sounds Middle Eastern. The Scottish Ensemble’s lovely performance of this work, whose focus is Simeon’s words after he takes the infant Jesus in his arms, makes this a beautiful seasonal piece as well as a lovely memorial. The disc also contains two instrumental works, of which Ypakoë, for piano (very well played here by Elena Riu), focuses through its five movements on the Passion and Resurrection of Christ – more an Easter story than a Christmas one, although of course the two are as intimately related as fallow-winter-and-spring-rebirth tales have been for thousands of years. The final work on the CD is Trisagion, a quintet for brass whose title is a Greek word that means “thrice holy” – and is the name of an important hymn in Orthodox churches. Although not directly religious, the piece was created against a religious background (Tavener converted to the Russian Orthodox faith in 1977), and its slow-moving, mostly consonant chordal structure is in the spirit of a typical hymn. The Wallace Collection plays this technically difficult music with considerable sensitivity and smoothness. Although Tavener’s music is not to all tastes, not even to the tastes of everyone interested in liturgical and religious compositions, the four pieces here – a fair representation of his work – will have resonance in the Christmas season and beyond.

     The Schola Antiqua of Chicago performance of Missa Conceptio tua by Pierre de la Rue (c. 1452-1518) has a direct tie-in to the holiday season, not to Christmas itself but to Advent, for which this half-hour Mass was written. The Naxos recording is a world première, and Michael Alan Anderson’s sensitive direction of the half-hour work produces a warm and deeply felt version of the traditional Latin Mass – not the most distinguished of the many settings of the words, but one that is emotionally true and heartfelt. The disc’s Advent focus also extends to seven Latin O Antiphons (that is, O Adonai, O Clavis David, O Rex Gentium and others) and the plainchant Alma Redemptoris Mater (“Nourishing Mother of the Redeemer”); and the disc concludes with three beautifully sung late Medieval English carols: There is no rose of swych vertu; Hail Mary, full of grace; and Nova, nova! This is a CD whose music first anticipates and then, in the concluding carols, celebrates the birth of the Christ child – a very apt seasonal presentation with essentially a single focus on love and redemption.

     The focus is considerably wider in the equally well-performed Carus CD called Madrigals of Madness, which features the works of seven composers of the 16th and 17th centuries. What the Calmus Ensemble explores here is not the madness of the composers themselves – although the four harmonically unusual madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), who is as well known for being a murderer as for being a composer, may make listeners wonder. The disc actually looks into forms of madness as reflected in music: the madness of love and lovesickness, war and loneliness. In addition to the madrigals of Gesualdo, the works here are What is our life? by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625); La bomba by Mateo Fletcher (c. 1481-1553); Lamento d’Arianna by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643); Scaramella by Josquin Desprez (c. 1450/55-1521); La guerre by Clément Janequin (c. 1485-1558); and Too much I once lamented by Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656). The madrigal form changed little during the period covered here, but some of the harmonic inventiveness became greater, and not just in Gesualdo’s examples. The expressiveness of the music is substantial, its concerns far more secular than sacred in pensive meditations on sadness, death, war and love. But these works are not mere lamentations: they are expressions, often stylized ones, of deeply felt emotions held in check only by the beauty of the music itself. Unlike discs intended wholly, or at least primarily, for the Christmas season, this is one that speaks to all times of the year and to people of any faith, delving into emotional territory to which any listener captured by the sound of the madrigal will respond – even hundreds of years after these works were created.

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