Holiday Music to Soothe, Amuse, and Inspire

Part One

Jason Serinus
5 December 2002

The high quality of this year's holiday-inspired releases comes as a welcome surprise. Until I began to play the first disc in my quite high review pile, I approached the prospect of assembling this third annual survey of seasonal holiday music with a mixture of ennui and dread. After all, past years have brought the UPS man awakening me day after day at 7 am with yet another Express package of Christmas fare, too frequently including a fair amount of dreck mixed in with some gems. But as soon as I heard the beauty of the music on Romantic Christmas Songs (Weihnacht Der Romantik), I knew that this year's survey would offer many rewards.

Here then is the first part of this annual survey of music suitable for individual upliftment, collective celebration and joyful affirmation.

Romantic Christmas Songs (Weihnacht der Romantik) - RIAS Kammerchor - Uwe Gronostay [Harmonia Mundi HMC 901794]

Any chorister hearing this disc will dream of producing an ensemble sound as round and perfectly blended. Instead of the blustery, full out, ragged singing that afflicts so many choral concerts, the 35-member RIAS Kammerchor's eleven sopranos, eight female altos, eight tenors, and eight basses perform the 19th century romantic Christmas repertoire with a warmth and conviction as open and nurturing as Mary's welcome to her newborn.

Harmonia Mundi recorded this compilation last June in Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin. The label's extensive experience in combining the uniqueness of a church's reverberant acoustic with an ideal clarity of individual voices and instruments gifts us with one of the smoothest, most enjoyable choral recordings of the year. The warm blend is perfect for the music of Reger, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Fuchs, Bruch, Silcher, Riedel, Kienzl and other nineteenth-century romantic composers. The graciousness with which the RIAS Kammerchor interprets this music makes for ideal listening, either in silence or as background music for feasting and celebration.

Happy Charles - The Christmas Dream [CD1201001-CD]

"It's so nice to have a CD from a young gay artist that combines romance with spiritual grace. It's very empowering." So says my partner David Bellecci, who joined me in extolling the praises of this uplifting, mid-priced, 38-minute pop CD.

"So raise your voice up and give your heart away this Christmas night," sings Happy Charles in "Give Your Heart Away," one of nine tracks on his heart-warming disc. The artist, aka Charles Green (www.happycharles.com), is a 26-year old pop singer who hails from a conservative Texas Baptist background. While he once considered "going straight, Green has instead embraced his identity as a gay man, using it as a springboard for a burgeoning career.

After journeying to Nashville to receive a degree in music business, Happy Charles began lending his genuinely wonderful, sweet, fresh voice and styling to pop music. Producer Allen Reynolds (Garth Brooks, Crystal Gayle, Kathy Mattea) tapped him to appear on two Garth Brooks albums totaling over 8 million units in sales. His trancepop song "Wear Your Pride" was a club hit earlier this year. And with The Christmas Dream, he has made another major pop statement that is sure to increase his following.

The Christmas Dream was produced and partially co-written by Jan Pulsford, whose other Xmas albums include Cyndi Lauper's Merry Christmas, Have A Nice Life, Dr. Elmo's Twisted Christmas, and her own Music for Winter Festivals. Pulsford composed the opening track, "Light a Candle," and helped with many of the arrangements, including versions of the traditional "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "Three Kings." The disc also features "Christmas Bells" and "Happy Christmas," two new songs from Jenny Yates (Garth Brooks); "If I Could" from Seth Glassman (The Tuesdays); "The Christmas Dream" by DJ Julian Marsh; and "Give Your Heart Away" by Happy Charles.

There is so such a positive, clean feel to this music. In place of a driving, incessantly mechanical beat, there is a genuine warmth and contemporary feel that is irresistible. Available from www.thechristmasdream.com, I cannot recommend this disc highly enough.

Sacred Songs - Plácido Domingo, Sissel - Orchestra Sinfonica E Coro Sinfonico di Milano Giuseppe Verdi [DG 289 471575-2]

Placido Domingo is a wonder. For the first compilation of sacred songs in his long career, the 61-year old tenor delivers an absolutely steady stream of dark, burnished, healthy tone, including several high C's. The reverent interpretations, though somewhat uniform in emotion, consistently reflect the generosity of voice and spirit that has become Domingo's hallmark. There is a sheer beauty to the performances, enhanced by a somewhat disembodied acoustic, that wins one over from the first notes.

Domingo's 16 selections include such classical mainstays as Franck's "Panis angelicus," the Bach/Gounod "Ave Maria," Schubert's "Mille cherubini in coro," Handel's "Ombra mai fu," and Rossini's "Domine Deus." Even though Domingo comments in the liner notes, "In a sense, all music is sacred, because it seems to come to use from a divine source," not all these selections are either considered "sacred music" or traditionally associated with the Christmas season - certainly not Richard Rodgers' "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" from The Sound of Music and Richard Wagner's "Der Engel" from his five Wesendonck-Lieder. Regardless, Domingo triumphs with a voice and quality that has few if any peers on today's stages.

Two of the works, Mascagni's "Ave Maria" (a vocal arrangement of his famed Intermezzo from the opera Cavalleria rusticana) and Stölzel's "Bist du bei mir" (once attributed to J.S. Bach), are performed with Norwegian-born pop singer Sissel, known from the soundtrack for the film Titanic. Robert Sadin has arranged both selections in a manner that weds old forms with modern styles. Attention is also drawn to Paolo Rustichelli's attractive, modern "Kyrie," with the composer providing accompaniment on piano, guitar & synthesizers; and Plácido Domingo, Jr's "Ave Maria," featuring the family team of Dad on voice and Luisa Domingo on harp. Highly recommended.

Hector Berlioz - L'Enfance du Christ - La Chappelle Royale, Collegium Vocale, Orchestra des Champs Élysées - Philippe Herreweghe [Harmonia Mundi HMX 2901632.33]

I must confess, save for Les Nuits d'Été, I am not a fan of Berlioz's vocal music. This 1854 work, begun four years earlier when a bored Berlioz scribbled down some notes during a reception, is valued by some as a quintessential representation of French romanticism, but to me offers an invitation to snooze. In fact, that's just what happened to me when I lay down to audition it during a weekend in the country. Yet if you are drawn to Berlioz's music, this two-disc set, recorded live in France in 1997, offers an outstanding conductor, orchestra, chorus and first-class soloists including soprano Véronique Gens and baritone Laurent Naouri.

Rejoice! A String Quartet Christmas, Volume Two [John Marks Records JMR 18]

Having neglected this wonderful disc in years past, I make amends with a hearty, long overdue recommendation. John Marks's audiophile label (www.jmrcds.com) has consistently produced audiophile recordings of the finest musical and sonic quality. A case in point is this disc, part of a series of three Rejoice! Christmas recording that feature an accomplished string quartet headed by violinist Arturo Delmoni.

Delmoni has done a wonderful job arranging these tracks, playing them with a distinctive, old world coloring that deepens their effect. Joined by violinist Nina Bodnar, violist Natasha Lipkina, and cellist Nathaniel Rosen, with guest harpist Emily Mitchell on "Ave Marias" by Bach/Gounod and Schubert, Delmoni delivers performances so tasteful and satisfying as to make this disc a treat from first note to last. Although the music relates to the Christian holiday season, there is a sophistication to the playing, combined with a seductive recorded sound, that makes this beautiful disc universally appealing for year-round listening.

Jim Wilson: My First Christmas With You [Hillsboro HMD1010]

New Age pianist/composer/arranger Jim Wilson's first Christmas album comes on the heels of two previous hits, Northern Seascape (Angel/EMI), which went Top 20 on Billboard's New Age chart, and Cape of Good Hope (Hillsboro/Green Hill), which made Billboard's New Age Top 10 and led to an hour-long national PBS television special, Jim Wilson & Friends: Cape of Good Hope (and Other Musical Portraits).

My First Christmas With You, available in stores and from www.jimwilson.net, contains 12 tracks lasting a mere 45 minutes. The programming seems especially stingy given that Joni Mitchell's soft jazz "River" and Wilson's "My First Christmas With You" appear twice in different versions. Many of the traditional tracks, such as "Little Drummer Boy," "Greensleeves," "Silent Night," and "O Come All Ye Faithful," are arranged by Jim Wilson. Distinct highlights are Dan Fogelberg's vocals on "God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen," Marilyn Martin and Wilson's duet on one of Wilson's "My First Christmas With You" tracks, and Stephen Bishop's vocals on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

If by New Age we mean a synthesized, wrap-around, floor-to-ceiling, all-enveloping Space Age acoustic that makes the classical soundstage seem dwarfed, then this album certainly qualifies. The basic aura of sound is wondrous. But if New Age implies some kind of pantheistic breakthrough of consciousness, a higher level of understanding where all people are understood as equally precious, divine manifestations of the Creator's love, then this album, along with air-brushed New Age art that tends to feature mostly naked, blond, long-haired maidens nurtured by dolphins and whales, leaves me puzzled. The arrangements and two original Wilson tunes are distinctly middle of the road; the pianism (by someone official endorsed by Yamaha Pianos, no less) lacking richness, depth and nuance; and the music more an invitation to kick back than a catalyst for transcendental consciousness. Easy on the ears? Certainly. Pleasant as background? Most assuredly. But ultimately, far more a soporific than a major musical statement. For those who love Yanni or Kenny G., this album is sure to please. For those asking more from their music, hardly.

Christmas Adagios: Holiday Classics to Touch your Heart and Soul [BMG 09026-63972-2]

This major recycling effort from BMG's rich archives proves a mixed bag. The 20 tracks, lasting almost 75 minute, feature selections recorded 1959 - 1997 by such stellar musical forces as flutist James Galway, The Boston Pops with Arthur Fiedler, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, The Canadian Brass, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, soft jazz ensemble Nightnoise, and The Philadelphia Orchestra with Eugene Ormandy. Some of the slow, mellow arrangements of customary Christmas titles are soothing, eminently musical, and worthy of glowing recommendations. Others are of more questionable taste, including Sir Thomas Beecham's very old style, ponderous rendition of the "Sinfonia" from Handel's Messiah, and some Boston Pops arrangements that verge on camp. As long as you play it softly in the background, where differences in recording technique and musical quality are minimized, this is a fine disc with which to set the Christmas mood.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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