Christmas IV: And Warm Woolen Mittens

C. Michael Bailey By

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"Classical music has always provided the holidays with a soundtrack for celebration, consideration and worship. Tailor-made for Christmastide, the albums reviewed below are redolent of mulled wine and fragrant Frankincense. They summon the spirits of masters at worship together.

Choir Of New College Oxford / Academy Of Ancient Music / Edward Higginbottom

Edward Higginbottom's Messiah is the third complete recording of Handel's oratorio released by Naxos. The previous two have been addressed previously. Higginbottom's version is notable because it is the only modern recording of two Handel London performances on April 18th and May 16th, 1751 at Covent Garden and the Foundling Hospital Chapel, where the maestro used treble voices for both choruses and arias.

In 1750, inspired by the Italian castrato Gaetano Guadagni, Handel generated new arrangements for "But Who May abide and "Thou Art Gone Up On High and used them in the 1751 performances. With that historical perspective stated, Higginbottom steers the 29 member Choir Of New College Oxford and the superb Academy Of Ancient Music through this significant historic artifact, blowing off the dust and dressing the oratorio up rightly. The tempi are all pleasantly paced (not too fast, as is a custom in period performances), the strings appealingly warm (for period instruments), and the soloists amply talented and powerful.

This recording with all-male chorus and soloists makes a strident argument for inclusion with the other staid performances of Handel's holiday masterpiece.

Monteverdi Choir / The English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Bach: Cantatas
Archiv Produktion

First, we have a bit of dishing the dirt. Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Chorus and English Baroque Soloists had long been a staple of the Deutsche Grammophon / Arkiv Produktion stable. On the eve of the maestro's ambitious survey of Bach cantatas, each performed and recorded on its appropriate Sunday throughout the year 2000, in liturgical venues all over the world, Deutsche Grammophon turned out the light, leaving the conductor with no contract. However, the label did permit Gardiner to keep the tapes he made, to do with as he pleased.

What Gardiner pleased was to form his own record company, Soli Deo Gloria, and release the cantatas himself, to much great acclaim. The present recording, under the subtext "Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, and released by Arkiv Produktion, was made in 1998 at the Abbey Road Studios in London. These cantatas (BWV 63, 64, and 133), regardless of lineage, are uniformly fine, as are all of Gardiner's Bach recordings. They are certainly comparable, in sonics and performance, with his 1990 Archiv Produktion recording of the Christmas Oratorio.

The soloists are all outstanding, particularly contralto Sara Mingardo ("Christen, Atzet Diesen Tag," "Recitative: O Selger Tag!" and "O Ungemeines Heute") and tenor Rufus Muller ("Christum Wir Sollen Loben Schon" and "Aria: O Du Von Gott Erhohte Kreatur.") One can count on Bach for providing the aural incense for the Christmas celebration.

Elora Festival Singers / Noel Edison
Arvo Part: Triodion, Ode VII (Momento), I Am The True Vine, Dopo La Vittoria

Noel Edison and the Elora Festival Singers' settings for Arvo Part's "Triodion," "Ode VII (Momento)," "I Am The True Vine" and "Dopo La Vittoria" are my ringers for expanding the holiday repertoire. With the possible exception of Polish Composer Krzysztof Penderecki, the Estonian Part is the finest living sacred music composer.

Naxos has made Part a pet project, issuing recordings of Fratres, Tabula Rasa, and Passio that give the ECM series a run for their money. Conductor Noel Edison and his group previously released Part's Berliner Messe in 2005 to a warm reception. Close to his Eastern Orthodox tradition, Part primarily composes liturgical pieces to be sung a cappella. All pieces performed herein are of relatively recent composition (since 1990). Most resulted from commissions for anniversary celebrations.

How fitting that we include these finely sung pieces here under the mantle of the holidays. This is vaporous, ethereal music, untethered and freely beautiful. Part's use of triads producing a bell-like resonance beneath the melody (tintinnabuli) deepens the ether of the music. His themes are appropriate in their attention to The Blessed Virgin and birth and renewal. This is peaceful music composed by a peaceful man. Arvo Part is proof that there are still giants among us.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: An Oratorio: Messiah, Parts 1, 2, 3.

Personnel: Choir Of New College Oxford / Academy Of Ancient Music / Edward Higginbottom.

Bach: Cantatas

Tracks: Christen, Atzet Diesen Tag, BWV63; Sehet, Welch Eine Liebe Hat Uns Der Vater Erzeiget, BWV64; Christum Wir Sollen Loben Schon, BWV121; Ich Freue Mich In Dir, BWV133.

Personnel: Monteverdi Choir / The English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

Arvo Part: Triodion, Ode VII (Momento), I Am The True Vine, Dopo La Vittoria

Tracks: Introduction: Ad Libitum - Ode I: 'O Jesus The Son Of God, Have Mercy Upon Us'; Ode II: 'O Most Holy Birth-giver Of God, Save Us'; Ode III: 'O Holy Saint Nicholas, Pray To God For Us' Coda: Ad Libtitum; Tribute To Caesa, St. Matthew 22, 15-22; Nunc Dimittis, St. Luke 2, 29-32; Ode VII (Memento); I Am The True Vine; The Woman With The Alabaster Box, St. Matthew 26, 6-13; After The Victory; Mother Of God And Virgin.

Personnel: Elora Festival Singers / Noel Edison.


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