December 03, 2015


Celebration of Christmas: Carol of Joy. BYU Singers conducted by Ronald Staheli; BYU Men’s Chorus and BYU Concert Choir conducted by Rosalind Hall; BYU Women’s Chorus conducted by Jean Applonie; BYU Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kory Katseanes. BYU Records. $13.99.

Make the Season Bright. United States Air Force Concert Band and Singing Sergeants conducted by Colonel Lowell E. Graham. Klavier. $16.99.

Rundumadum. Grassauer Blechbläser Ensemble conducted by Wolfgang Diem. Klanglogo. $18.99.

Flourishes, Tales and Symphonies: Music for Brass and Organ by Carlyle Sharpe, Giuseppe Verdi, William White, David Marlatt, Jaromír Weinberger, Camille Saint-Saëns and Peter Meechan. Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble conducted by Rodney Holmes. MSR Classics. $12.95.

1615: Gabrieli in Venice. Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and His Majesty’s Sagbutts & Cornetts conducted by Stephen Cleobury. Choir of King’s College. $25.99 (Blu-ray Disc+SACD).

     When it comes to the celebratory side of Christmas, few universities let the season ring out as joyfully as Brigham Young University does. BYU ensembles excel in seasonal music both vocal and instrumental, as is strongly evident throughout the new BYU Records release, Celebration of Christmas: Carol of Joy. What is most on display here is indeed joy, not only in the words of the 15 mostly familiar works on the disc but also in the art of music-making itself. These are singers and players who sound as if they revel in what they are doing, whether the orchestra is delivering delightfully dashing versions of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride and the Trepak and Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, or the combined choirs are feelingly offering the words of Angels We Have Heard on High or, with the orchestra, O Come, All Ye Faithful. There is no downplaying here of the religious significance of Christmas, but there is no proselytizing, either, except to the extent that the performances are so warm and welcoming that they invite believers and nonbelievers alike to share in some Christmas magic. All the works are a delight to hear: Sing We Now of Christmas, Carol of Joy, Dryads’ Bells, Gesù Bambino, The First Noel, Gaudete, The Wexford Carol, Sussex Carol, The Goslings, and The Baby Softly Stills.

     The pleasures are similar but the sound very different – although equally engaging – in Make the Season Bright on the Klavier label. The 13 tracks here include more than that number of selections, because A Few Festive Things is a five-carol medley, The Many Moods of Christmas, Suite 3 contains four, Christmas Wonderland includes three, and there are five in Christmas Visitors. The suites jump from piece to piece pleasantly, with some juxtapositions especially effective: What Child Is This followed by Hark! The Herald Angels Sing in Many Moods of Christmas, Suite 3, for example, and Frosty the Snowman succeeded by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in Christmas Visitors. Almost all the music here is upbeat and is sung and played with enthusiasm, with the United States Air Force Concert Band and Singing Sergeants under Colonel Lowell E. Graham bringing the material a sound very different from that of the Brigham Young performers – this disc’s version of Anderson’s Sleigh Ride is a particularly clear example. Also here are Jingle Bells, December Makes Me Feel This Way, Variations on a West Country Carol, The Polar Express, The Twelve Days of Christmas, a two-tune offering of The Christmas Song/Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and an unusual and affecting choice, Polonaise from “La Nuit de Noël” by Rimsky-Korsakov. The many lively tunes and fine band performance do indeed make the season bright.

     Even without vocals, seasonal music offers many delights, sometimes including offbeat ones. On a new Klanglogo CD called Rundumadum (Bavarian for “round and round”), the 10 members of Grassauer Blechbläser Ensemble (the Grassau Brass Band) combine expected instruments (French horn, trombone) with unexpected ones (alphorn, Baroque trumpet) in an all-brass program that, because of the wide range of instruments, has more color and more sonic variation than music by brass ensembles typically does. There are 20 works offered here, ranging from the one-minute Der güldene Rosenkranz to the seven-movements-in-nine-minutes Münchner Weinacht, a neat encapsulation of a Bavarian Christmas. Few of these pieces, other than The Christmas Song and Adeste Fidelis, will be familiar to non-German listeners, and as it turns out, that is all to the good, since the holiday flavor of the offerings comes through clearly even without knowing the tunes – and in the absence of singing, listeners can simply sit back and enjoy some excellent brass playing on instruments both familiar and unfamiliar. The Grassauer Blechbläser Ensemble is a group whose acquaintance it is well worth making, at Christmastime or anytime.

     The association of brass with Christmas is a longstanding one, but the pleasures of brass music are far from seasonal – and far from time-bound, as becomes clear on an intriguing new MSR Classics release featuring the interestingly named Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble, which is conducted by its founder, Rodney Holmes. Started in 1992 at the University of Chicago, the ensemble took its name from the gargoyles at the school’s campus, which unfortunately means that, despite the name, the players are not themselves gargoyles (that would be a sight to see). Listeners who get over the disappointment of being gargoyle-less will here encounter some interesting juxtapositions of brass-focused works from the Romantic and contemporary eras. The mixing and matching does not always work seamlessly, but the attempt to bridge the musical gap through repertoire choice and some fine arrangements of Verdi, Weinberger and Saint-Saëns by Craig Garner is an intriguing one. From Verdi we get the famous brindisi from Act I of La Traviata; from Weinberger, the well-known polka and fugue from Schwanda, the Bagpiper; and from Saint-Saëns, a portion of the “Organ” symphony. Taking the first two of these out of context does them little harm, but doing so with the Saint-Saëns material is less justifiable, although clearly the purpose here is to showcase the ensemble’s playing rather than delve into the subtleties of the composer’s Symphony No. 3. Alternating with these works from the 19th and early 20th centuries are ones from the 21st: Flourishes (2005/2010) and Prelude, Elegy and Scherzo (2012) by Carlyle Sharpe; The Dwarf Planets (2012) by William White; Earthscape (2014) by David Marlatt; and Velvet Blue (2012) by Peter Meehan. White’s five-movement suite offers some interesting instrumentation, although it does not really differentiate the dwarf planets particularly intelligibly (a difficult task in instrumental music). The other contemporary pieces offer solid understanding of writing for brass, and Sharpe’s in particular show sensitivity to the instruments’ capabilities and sound qualities. None of the modern works is highly distinctive, however: all are well-crafted without appearing to stem from the kind of inspiration that has kept the older pieces (in the forms in which they were originally written) in the concert and opera repertoire for so long a time.

     When it comes to considering the longevity of brass music, the works of Giovanni Gabrieli come immediately to mind. A new release featuring the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, on its own label, shows why in unusually striking terms. The sheer sonic splendor of Gabrieli’s brass music, when heard as it is here – using historically accurate performance practices and reproductions of the instruments of Gabrieli’s time – is quite astonishing. And the release of this recording both in SACD format and on a Blu-ray audio disc is no mere marketing ploy: a new Dolby sound-enhancement system called Atmos is employed here for the first time on a classical-music release. It is likely that the combination of Dolby Atmos with the excellent acoustics of the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, is what makes the music here sound so balanced, clear and well-rounded, enveloping listeners and involving them rather than being directed at them from a single location. The experience is a touch unsettling, being more like what moviegoers get in theaters – for which Dolby Atmos was developed – than what classical-concert attendees are accustomed to. In some repertoire, this type of sound would simply be gimmicky. But for the 13 works by Gabrieli heard here, it works exceptionally well: Gabrieli’s music, after all, was generally designed for celebratory occasions, and under such circumstances, the notion of having music surround listeners and pull them into a sonic experience was as valid 500 years ago as it is today. Only the technology has changed – and this recording represents an unusually attractive melding of the latest recording techniques with some of the oldest and still most elegant brass music ever written. For Christmas season or any season – these Gabrieli works are actually more attuned to Easter than Christmas – a recording like this one provides ample reason simply to sit back and indulge oneself in the sound of absolutely first-rate choral singing, wonderfully idiomatic brass playing, and a sonic presentation that keeps every nuance of the music as clear and beautiful as it can possibly be.

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