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Bailey’s Bundle: Holiday Edition


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This edition of my Christma holiday release reviews began this January with two recordings that I missed. There are always worthy holiday recordings released every year and 2020 has been no exception.

The Archaic Corner

Gothic Voices
Nowell synge we bothe al and som: A Feast of Christmas Music in Medieval England
Linn Records

In 1981, the vocal ensemble Gothic Voices released their debut recording A Feather on the Breath of God -Sequences and Hymns by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (Hyperion), featuring Dame Emma Kirkby in her sophomore recording and catalyzing a decade of interest in the music of Hildegard von Bingen. A score of recordings and solid evolution since have led the group to the present Nowell synge we bothe al and som: A Feast of Christmas Music in Medieval England, focusing on Twelfth-through Fifteenth-Century English carols, ancient chant, song,and motets arranged in two broad groups: the first featuring Advent themes, the Blessed Virgin, and the Annunciation; the second focusing on the Birth of Jesus itself. This is old music, sung and captured in close quarters, by small vocal forces. This performance recalls what music the Beadsman heard, "while he told / His rosary, and while his frosted breath, / Like pious incense from a censer old..." in Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes" (1820). This is quaint music of faith and adoration and an excellent recording for listeners tired of more traditional or commercial Holiday fare.

Kammerchor der Erlöserkirche Bad Homburg; Johann-Rosenmüller-Ensemble
Machet die Tore weit: Weihnachtsmusik an der Thomaskirche

Even if not German-speaking, the reader's eye falling on "Thomaskirche '' will liberate a thought of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was cantor of Leipzig's St. Thomas Church between 1723 and 1750. But Bach was neither the alpha nor omega at Thomaskirche. In the years preceding him, the church sported a world-famous boys' choir that attracted generations of accomplished musicians and composers, These composers included Tobias Michael, Sebastian Knüpfer, Johann Schelle, Johann Casper Horn, and Johann Kuhnau, all who have faded into a silent history, partially for being the immediate predecessors of probably the most famous Cantor of St Thomas. Like Bach, these men were responsible for student instruction, and the liturgical music for the church services, especially Christmas. The sound is typical of middle Baroque, featuring the traditional instruments of the period. These compositions characterize a music evolving toward A Christmas Oratorio featuring the same vibrant percussion and sharp period violins and natural horns. These composers show that Bach did not arise, fully formed from a vacuum, rather as part of a continuum brought to its apex. Evidence lies in Schelle's signature "Machet die Tore weit" which is ebullient and celebratory performed with expertise by Kammerchor der Erlöserkirche Bad Homburg under the baton of Susanne Rohn and the Johann-Rosenmüller-Ensemble led by Arno Paduch.

L'arpa festante
Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her: Weihnachtskonzerte aus Leipzig

Throwing all caution to the wind, the recording label Christophorus releases a second recording of German Baroque Christmas Music, featuring Thomaskirche cantors prior to Bach, this time by the ensemble L'arpa festante, steered by Christoph Hesse and Peter Gortner's Kammerchor der Christuskirche Karlsruhe. The composer names are already familiar, including the previously mentioned Schelle, Knüpfer, and Kuhnau. The label did not permit any overlap between this and the Weihnachtsmusik an der Thomaskirche recording, revealing a wealth of such music from a creative loam deep and wide. What this recording lacks in the exuberance of the previous recording it makes up in awe and reverence. The recording is anchored by Schelle's setting of Martin Luther's choral "Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar" and Kuhnau's Magnificat in C-Dur." Tenor Sebastian Hübner is excellent, singing the latter's "Suscepit Israel puerum suum" while sopranos Monika Mauch and Hanna Zumsande are equally fine throughout. The value of these two recordings is their ability to inform and remind us that Bach was not composing alone, but, rather, as part of an evolving environment that was as productive as it was of extremely high quality.

The Traditional Corner

The Gesualdo Six, Owain Park

Looking for a peer to what I consider the best Christmas collection, Chanticleer's 1995 We Sing Christmas (Teldec), I may have found it, or at least something close. The Gesualdo Six have many choral antecedents besides Chanticleer in The King's Singers, Cantus, The Hilliard Ensemble, Oxford Camerata, Trio Mediaeval, and Anonymous 4. The sextet's recording Christmas (Hyperion, 2019), offers a survey of the Christmas Canon from the Fourteenth-through the Twentieth Centuries. Typical of smaller ensembles, the Gesualdo Six project a warm and approachable sound, captured deep in the reverberation of the Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, where these pieces were recorded in early 2019. Resonant and inviting, the group's collective sound is powerful, despite its small number compared with Chanticleer. Smaller ensembles bear a greater burden in the proper mix and harmony of the limited voices. Ensemble director Owain Park expertly molds creative eras seamlessly, making Philip Lawson's mid-Twentieth Century "Veni Emmanuel'' and Michael Prateorious' Fifteenth Century "Es Ist ein Ros' entsprungen" sound as contemporary as the former and ancient as the latter. Educational, informative, and enjoyable, the Gesualdo Six's Christmas offers a repository of philosophic, spiritual, and musical history carefully crafted and tenderly offered.

Winchester College Chapel Choir * Onyx Brass * Benjamin Cunningham * Howard Ionascu
A Winter's NIght: Christmas Music for Choir, Brass Quintet & Organ
Signum Classics

A Winter's NIght casts its novelty in the addition of a brass ensemble to the performance of Christmas concerts and carol services, combining the more traditional sounds of choir and organ with the brightness and muscle provided by a brass quintet. Secondly, the selections are all reimaginings of traditional Christmas melodies, mostly rearranged in the Twentieth Century and having a flavor of the British Isles. The title piece is drawn from Cecilia McDowall's Christmas Cantata: A Winter's Night, where the composer incorporates several popular carol melodies: "In dulci Jubilo," "O little one sweet," "Noël nouvelet" (originally a traditional French carol, known in English as "Now the green blade rises"), "Still, Still, Still" and "Sussex carol." McDowall's reharmonization of these well known melodies sharpens them for the ear, an element accentuated by the accompanying brass. The quintet is featured on "In The Bleak Midwinter" arranged by Timothy Jackson, composer, arranger and principal horn in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra "Tomorrow shall be my dancing day," typically ascribed as "traditional," first appeared in print in 1833, included in William B. Sandys' Carols Ancient and Modern but, more than likely, was part of a medieval mystery play. Here, the piece is arranged by David Willcocks into an arresting choral presentation. The recital ends with "Ding Dong! Merrily on High" arranged here with a brilliant organ part and additional brass parts by Mark Jordan. The recording summons a crepuscular winter quiet, bringing tidings of comfort and joy.

SWR Vokalensemble Marcus Creed
Christmas Carols
SWR Classic

Christmas Carols is a study of sorts, defining and displaying the origin and the art of the "carol," and, in particular, those devoted to the Christmas Season. In the liner notes, Eva Zöllner provides a succinct history of the carol as it existed in England since its origins in Medieval mystery plays to modern compositions of Thomas Adés in the Twenty-First Century. This 19-selection project is curated by choirmaster Marcus Creed, English-born expatriate to Germany, where from 2003 until 2020, he has been artistic director of the SWR Vokalensemble in Stuttgart. Creed possesses impressive forces in his choir who perform acapella in a commanding fashion well suited to compare with Howard Ionascu's A Winter's NIght addressed above. Stylistically, the two recordings have different goals while addressing the same British-sourced material. Where Ionascu crafted a gift of great intellectual beauty while Creed wanted to keep it simple. Creed harnesses the power, squeezing from it, the grace from the Vokalensemble. Comparing "Coventry Carol," "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day," and "Ding Dong Merrily On High" versions, Creed divines a calm celebration possessing a profound spiritual momentum, organically filling the space containing it.

The Contemporary Corner

Cappella Romana, Alexander Lingas
Richard Toensing: Kontakion On The Nativity Of Christ
Cappella Romana

Kontakion On The Nativity Of Christ requires a bit of unpacking. The kontakion is a type of hymn sung in the Orthodox and the Eastern Catholic liturgical traditions. The specific kontakion here is devoted to the Nativity, the text composed by Saint Romanos the Melodist (c 490 -c 556) and is set to music by Richard Toensing, who also composed a brief series of modern Christmas Carols based in Eastern Orthodoxy. Cappella Romana is a vocal chamber ensemble whose charge is maintaining the musical traditions of the Christian East and West, with emphasis on early and contemporary music. The group's name reflects the medieval Greek ecumenical concept embracing Rome and Western Europe as well as the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople (the "New Rome"). The present recording celebrates a thousand years of choral tradition, incorporating plainchant with Renaissance and Baroque polyphony and the forward thinking of John Tavener and Arvo Pärt. Toensing brings a decidedly American flavor to an ancient tradition. This is particularly true in the carol endings, which echo the gospel tradition by way of Europe. Founder and director Alexander Lingas summons diamond bright and dusky somber tones from the ensemble, providing something a little different than the usual holiday fare. This is serious contemporary choral music.

David Benoit
It's A David Benoit Christmas
Steinway & Sons

Pianist David Benoit's It's A David Benoit Christmas finds itself at the corner of nostalgia and virtuosity, with the still vital spirit of Vince Guaraldi stooped over the piano in the form of a tow-headed Schroder plinking out "Für Elise" while Lucy pines away for him. Released by the Steinway & Sons piano-centric label, Benoit's instrument is captured closely, all resonance and timbre acutely claimed and recorded and accessible at low volume listening. This recording operates on multiple levels of recognition and awareness. On one hand these are well known holiday songs that have become a part of the seasonal canon. At the same time they summon the memory of a 50-year old animation that has become as much a part of the American (and world) psyche as The Wizard of Oz (MGM, 1939). A Charlie Brown Christmas (Lee Mendelson Films, 1965) is encoded into the Baby Boomer DNA, in no small part because of Guaraldi's memorable score. Benoit maintains all necessary reverence without choking his performance with it. "Linus and Lucy" is fanciful, with Benoit straying into a dream bridge and jazz break with thundering bass and accented upper register playing. All of them are here, including "The Red Baron," "Peppermint Patty," and "You're in Love, Charlie Brown," with the bonus of "My Favorite Things" and "Pebble Beach." The sound is vibrant and vital, making It's A David Benoit Christmas a superior listening experience.

Calmus Ensemble
White Christmas

White Christmas is a repackaging of the cherry-picked highlights from several earlier releases including: Calmus Christmas Carols (Carus, 2009) and Christmas Carols of the World, Volume 1 (Carus, 1015) with only "Entre le boeuf" have been recorded in 2020. Calmus Ensemble is a quintet consisting of (presently): countertenor Stefan Kahle, soprano Anja Pöche, tenor Friedrich Bracks, bass Manuel Helmeke, baritone Ludwig Böhme. They might be described as the love child of The Manhattan Transfer and The King's Singers, with a decidedly jazz edge to their collective approach to the holiday repertoire. The Calmus Ensemble makes fresh the canon with some dramatic reharmonizing. An excellent exposition of its approach is in comparing Sebastian Krause's (a past member) arrangement of "Es Ist ein Ros' entsprungen" with the relatively traditional treatment of the same by The Gesualdo Six above. The Calmus Ensemble's treatment is imaginative and progressive. "White Christmas" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas" are given their own momentum with this progressive imagination. A beautifully traditional "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and a reimagined "Silent Night" (this latter performed in the original Deutsche) close the disc appropriately. This is singing rarefied and the best release of the bunch.

The Messiah Corner

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jonathan Griffith
Signum Classics

Let's dispense with this one first. The Goossens-Beecham Messiah is a bit like Verdun, 1916. Beechem and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra pick up a battalion of players and singers, throwing everything they have at Handel's humble score. The original 1959 recording was soundly praised and continues to be so, as either the greatest thing since Mahler (had he scored the piece) to "what-were-they-thinking?" The sugar and bile have done nothing but grow in the 60 years between Beecham's and now, Jonathan Griffith's reading with the same orchestra. After countless "historically informed" performances, this bombast is a welcome listen, full of sound and fury. The sheer momentum alone, created by a cast of thousands, is impressive enough to properly celebrate the season. Add to this equally powerful soloists, and the piece becomes an irrepressible celebration suited for the 21st century with 21st century sound and engineering. This is not a performance for the weak of heart. Those favoring John Butt's Linn performance will be frightened to death of this noise. But, like the blues, Messiah belongs to everyone and this reading offers something for everyone.

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin / RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, Justin Doyle
Handel Messiah

On the other side of the world from Jonathan Griffith's interpretation with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is Justin Doyle's performance with the Academy of Ancient Music Berlin with the Berlin / RIAS Kammerchor Berlin. Period instrumentation, period performances, British soloists, German orchestra, Pentatone sound and engineering. This performance is my choice for best Messiah release this year. Doyle directs a tight reading, but not so tight as to stagger the performance. Countertenor Tim Mead and tenor Thomas Hobbs provide sharp but creamy solos with soprano Julia Doyle singing with clear and liquid bell-like tones as if realized from mercury. The chorus sounds recorded at distance with the orchestra barely in front for a warm and expansive sound. After successfully recording Handel's Concerto Grossi under Bernhard Forck, the group was ready to spread its wings and fly.

Gaechiger Cantorey, Hans-Christoph Rademann
Handel Messiah
Accentus Music

Dublin Version, 1742. Gaechiger Cantorey is the noted German mixed choir, founded by Helmuth Rilling in 1954 as Gächinger Kantorei and conducted by him until 2013, succeeded by Hans-Christoph Rademann, presently at the helm for this recording. Using modern instruments and tempi somewhere between the dirge momentum of Goossens-Beecham and the fever dream of Marc Minkowski, Rademann. with exceptional soloists in soprano Dorothee Mields, alto Benno Schachtner, Tenor Benedikt Kristjánsson, and bass Tobias Berndt, turns in a an evenly paced, full-throated performance straight down what would be called the "middle-of-the-road."

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