sat 25/06/2022

Classical CDs Weekly: Christmas CDs 2 | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Christmas CDs 2

Classical CDs Weekly: Christmas CDs 2

A classical CD isn't just for Christmas: seven more seasonal discs with staying power

Less is more: The Telling tackle Christmas carols


Schutz ChristmasSchütz: The Christmas Story Yale Schola Cantorum/David Hill (Hyperion)

Heinrich Schutz’s parents did their best to dissuade him from becoming a professional musician in 17th century Dresden, arguing that a legal career was a better option. Luckily, a wealthy patron sent him to Venice to study with Gabrieli, Schütz later recognising no conflict between his love for the music of Catholic Italy and his Protestant faith. His Historia der Gerburt Christi is a lovely work, concise and elaborately scored. A pair of chirping recorders accompany the shepherds, and Herod gets some suitably imposing trumpets. Best of all are the sackbuts underpinning Schütz’s priests, wonderfully mellow in David Hill’s new recording. Very Italianate recitatives separate the bigger numbers, the two styles coexisting happily. Six shorter Schütz pieces complete this disc, including an uplifting little Magnificat. Yale University's Schola Cantorum sing and play like seasoned professionals, and Hyperion’s documentation is excellent.

Rick Wakeman ChristmasRick Wakeman: Christmas Portraits (Sony)

Rick Wakeman’s classical chops were honed at the Royal College of Music in the late 1960s, though he dropped out to become a session musician. My jaw still drops when I hear his piano contribution to David Bowie's “Life on Mars”. Wakeman is a proper musician, and this engaging, low-key album is a selection of instrumental carol arrangements, their melodies “perfect for adaptation to produce variations on the piano… that is exactly what this album is.” He's pretty respectful, the twinkly flourishes which begin many of the tracks segueing into affectionate, effective transcriptions. Wakeman stretches “Away in a Manger” from 3/4 to 4/4 time and gets away with it, and he's good at linking seemingly disparate carols together: here, the “Coventry Carol” imperceptibly turns into “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel”, a trick successfully repeated several times. Unexpectedly delightful.

Solomon knotMagnificat - Christmas in Leipzig Solomon’s Knot (Sony)

Solomon’s Knot give us here the earlier, E-flat version of Bach’s Magnificat, a work premiered in Leipzig on Christmas Day 1723. This performance carries an exhilarating punch: if those pounding drum beats and bright trumpets don't set your heart racing, you've no soul. Having two singers per part in the bigger numbers gives Bach's counterpoint thrilling clarity; “Gloria in excelsis Deo” is spectacular here. Michal Czeniawski and Peter Davoren’s alto/tenor duet in “Et misericordia” may provoke tears. It's coupled with a setting of the same text by another Leipzig composer. Comparing Johann Kuhnau’s Magnificat in C to Bach's demonstrates the difference between talent and genius: the Kuhnau contains lovely moments but just doesn’t grip in the same way. Solomon’s Knot preface it with the brassy, affirmative Machet die Tore by Kuhnau’s predecessor Johann Schelle. Playing and singing are stellar throughout the disc, the live recording thrillingly immediate.

Nui de NoelNuit de Noël (Alpha Classics)

Please don't buy this double album as a download. The track listing does contain many jewels, Alpha Classics giving us selections of vocal and instrumental Christmas music. The performances, from a variety of sources, are all decent: I enjoyed extracts from Hervé Niquet’s period performance of Handel's Messiah, and Amandine Beyer’s version of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. Not much of the instrumental music is associated with the season, but I'm not objecting to bleeding chunks of Bach cello suites and Brandenburg concertos when they're this well played. The vocal selections on disc are mostly French, ending with “Il est né le divin enfant”. All good – this is an impressively highbrow, thoroughly accessible collection. Still, what really got me excited was opening up the gatefold sleeve, a glitzy pop-up Christmas tree concealed in the middle. It's very cool. Show it to friends and family and wait for the squeals of delight.

Baroque ChristmasA Baroque Christmas (Harmonia Mundi)

René Jacobs’ 1997 recording of Bach's Christmas Oratorio is just one reason to acquire this compendious box set. Warm, sonorous chorus work and splendid playing from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, impress, along with excellent soloists. There's also the chance to dive into Charpentier’s gorgeous Pastorale sur la naissance de notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ. Sébastien Daucé’s Ensemble Correspondances make a persuasive case for an inexplicably neglected work. Orchestrally, it's delicious (sample the second part’s “Joignons nos flûtes”), the music’s warmth and sensuality striking. Daucé includes the additional versions of the work’s second part as a supplement. Bach's oratorio can leave me feeling awed and a little intimidated; the Charpentier work had me grinning. Both are masterpieces. Disc Four includes music by Corelli, Buxtehude and Schutz. The whole set offers over five hours of top notch baroque musical entertainment. Packaging and documentation are excellent, though no texts are provided. At this price, who's complaining? A terrific collection.

spanish nativityA Spanish Nativity Stile Antico (Harmonia Mundi)

Stile Antico’s seasonal disc centres on Alonso Lobo’s Missa Beata Dei genitrix, first published in 1602. Lobo cheekily lifted material from the Beata Dei genitrix Maria composed by his teacher Franciso Guerrero; compare the opening of Lobo’s “Kyrie” to the Guerrero and you'll hear the similarity. Its five movements are interspersed with a selection of motets and carols from Spain’s Siglo de Oro. The carols are a good entry point: Guerrero’s “A un niño llorando” is a delight, an account of three humbled kings visiting “a child crying in the cold”. A highlight is the effervescent “Ríu ríu chíu” by Mateo Flecha ‘El Viejo”. Flecha‘s “El Jubilate” is one of the composer's ensaladas, a witty, metrically irregular number relating how Mary defeats the devil. The Lobo mass contains much stunning music, particularly a solemn but ecstatic “Gloria”, but I'd argue that the greatest work on this CD is Victoria’s stark, powerful O magnum mysterium. Stile Antico's performance is flawless, the group's technical prowess never at the expense of expressive warmth.

Secret Life CarolsThe Secret Life of Carols - 800 Years of Christmas Music The Telling (First Hand Records)

Less is definitely more in this anthology, with just four musicians giving us a selection of English and European carols spanning eight centuries. The Telling’s selection reflects its members’ roots and experiences, music from Germany, France, Finland, Ireland and Spain heard alongside the familiar numbers. Their “Coventry Carol”, sung as a duet accompanied by Jean Kelly on Celtic harp, is sublime, as is a swifter, upbeat “Stille Nacht”. Singers Clare Norburn and Ariane Prüssner are well matched, utterly secure in a pair of a capella Mediæval English carols. The catchiness of these pieces is no accident: carols were meant to be accessible to all, the choruses singable by the musically untrained. Kaisa Pulkkinen plays a baroque harp, her spare take on the Finnish carol “Maa on niin kaunis” both idiomatic and utterly contemporary. A lovely disc, attractively produced.



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