Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

Tuning into holiday recordings


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For the latest installment of B.A.R. 's annual holiday recording round-up, we begin with the one that's received the Upper/Downer Pairing of the Season Award for 2016, Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker & Symphony No. 4 (Mariinsky SACD). The source is that happiest of campers, Valery Gergiev, and the Mariinsky Orchestra. Tchaikovsky's delightful fantasy ballet zips along at a pace that will keep dancers on their toes. In case they're flying too high, the fate theme from the Fourth Symphony will remind you of the consequences of living a closeted life amidst societal pressure to partner with a member of the opposite sex. Since Tchaikovsky's possible suicide is not a fate you wish to bestow on any young child, please encourage them to explore their full potential with pride. You also might encourage them to stop the disc once The Nutcracker ends.

While we're wallowing in downers, how about the hi-resolution disc pairing Ricardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Schoenberg: Kol Nidre; Shostakovich: Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti (CSO Live SACD)? It's the wrong Jewish prayer for Hanukkah, and the Michelangelo is no romp in the park, but the recording does help us acknowledge that Jews are celebrating Hanukkah amidst a rise in anti-Semitic attacks. It also reminds us that some of the greatest artists of all time, e.g. Michelangelo, were homosexual. Narrator Alberto Mizrahi, dramatic though he may be, sounds far too arch and evil for the Schoenberg. But bass Ildar Abdrazakov is magnificent in the Michelangelo .

Time to clear the air with The King's Singers' Christmas Songbook (Signum). "Get on down/Santa Claus, he's comin' to town" is not what you'd expect from these six proper Englishmen, but their renditions are coy and comfy. Gustav Holst, Meredith Wilson, Irving Berlin and Franz Xavier Gruber gather round the Christmas tree on this a cappella follow-up to the boys' sometimes campy The Great American Songbook project.

Sporting two different dos, one for her natural trumpet, and the other for her fuller-sounding modern version of same, Alison Balsom joins the Academy of Ancient Music, Stephen Cleobury and Tom Etheridge on organ, and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge for Jubilo (Warner), a very fine disc of trumpet music by Fasch, Bach, Torelli, and Corelli (his Christmas Concerto).

Carolae: Music for Christmas (Naxos) is a fitting showcase for the craft of Grammy-nominated English composer James Whitbourn (b. 1963). Several world premiere recordings, including the portentous "Veni et illumine," accompany the disc's centerpiece, the various Missa carolae. Medieval influences abound, as does a weighty musical sensibility that seems equally fit for a TV miniseries soundtrack or a Christmas procession for a long-forgotten King and Queen. In answer to the question, "What is the world coming to?" it's been there for far longer than your lifetime, honey.

If only great tenor Fritz Wunderlich hadn't drunk too much and, shortly before his 36th birthday, tripped on the laces of his boots, falling down the stairs to his death in a hunting lodge. Thankfully, his glorious gifts were recognized early. Thus do we have Fritz Wunderlich Sings Festival Arias (SWR Music), comprised mainly of early, rare radio tapes of Bach, Handel, Buxtedhude, Schuetz, and Telemann. Arias from Des Messias are gorgeous, with historically apt embellishments but sometimes ponderous tempi. The earliest recording was made shortly after Wunderlich turned 25.

Julian Wachner continues to do fantastic work with the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, as their atmospherically recorded The Snow Lay on the Ground: Festive Carols from Trinity Wall Street (Arsis) shows. Together with the Trinity Youth Chorus and Novus NY, these renditions of Wachner's arrangements, along with his four unedited, first-take organ improvisations, score a 10. Dynamics are excellent for CD, with the beginning of "Joy to the World" strong enough to bolster a crumbling empire. Only the over-enunciation (the t's could kill) and extra effort to sound like anything but singers from New York detract from an otherwise superb production.

Canadian pop singer Sarah McLachlan's Wonderland (Verve) uses a modest amount of percussive and spacey effects to frame McLachlan's sweet, upbeat, breathy voice. The feeling may be pop, but the optimism is like a blast from the past. It feels like what you might expect from a cozy family Christmas where all talk of politics is banned.

The NOLA Players' Christmas in New Orleans (Verve) is a retro, jazz-tinged big-band visit to a land where good cheer compensates for a lack of snow. Forget about breaking new ground, and instead pass the egg nog.

Christmas with Septura (Naxos) features an excellent bass septet performing arrangements of music by Bach, Handel, Rachmaninov, and Warlock. The arrangement of "Ich freue mich in dir" ("I am delighted in thee") is a joy to listen to. This is a great one to play in the background to lift everyone's spirits.

Voces 8's Winter (Decca) offers a spacious, New Age take on music by Olafur Arnalds & Arnor Dan Arnarson, Arvo Part, Peteris Vaska, Ola Gjeilo, Sergei Rachmaninov, and Judith Bingham. The eight singers are quite accomplished, and the presentation a variation of the Great Pyramid Meets the Crystal Cathedral. The sound is as lovely as the mixed a cappella ensemble is photogenic.

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