Holiday 2014: Nearly Christmas

C. Michael Bailey By

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Where is your sense of humor? No, not one of these discs could practically be called "Holiday" or "Christmas" music. Para-Christmas music, maybe, but not the bona fide real deal. I just exercise my critical prerogative to call these closely related releases okay for review as holiday releases, mostly because of their Christian emphases and sacred context. No matter, they are worth an gander and a listen this season.

Dunedin Consort; Ben Parry, Director
In the Beginning: Aaron Copland / Samuel Barber
Linn Records

The Scottish Dunedin Consort began as a considerable different ensemble than what it has turned out to be. Most recently, under the direction of John Butt, the Consort has addressed the Baroque music of Handel and classical music of Mozart. In the late 1990s-early 2000s, the group, then under the direction of Ben Parry, released a choral extravaganza highlighting the infrequently heard vocal music of Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber.

Copeland introduces the disc with his vocal piece "In the Beginning" featuring mezzo-soprano soloist (Sally Bruce-Payne, here). Barber's contribution here has a vocal interpretation of this famous "Adagio for Strings" derived from the slow movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. Barber arranged a vocal setting for the Mass part Agnus Dei using the Latin Vulgate text. It is quite effective. Its presentation here is welcome and the performance is stunning. After Barber's Reincarnations, Op.16, Copland concludes things with his Four Motets, which are uniquely American while still being in the Western Musical Tradition. They are very much in keeping with his Americana pieces.

Schola Antiqua of Chicago; Michael Alan Anderson, Director
Missa Conceptio Tua: Medieval and Renaissance Music for Advent
Naxos Records

Naxos Records has made a cottage industry seeking out esoteric and little-known music from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Assembled here is the music of Advent, the four weeks preceding the Christmas Celebration. The disc begins with a series of plainchants from 800 ACE. They continue their search with Missa Conceptio Tua: Medieval and Renaissance Music for Advent, which includes a world premiere of Pierre de la Rue's Mass setting Missa Conceptio Tua. The subject of this music is the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth, central tenants to Christianity.

The disc closes with Advent settings of plainchant from Late Medieval English Carols (15th Century). These settings are able examples of early polyphony, and compare well with the earlier monophony of the opening "O Antiphons" which more closely resemble that we think of a "Gregorian Chant." This beautifully simple set is expertly performed by the Schola Antiqua of Chicago in their debut for the label.

Various Artists
When I Reach that Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel 1926-1936
Tompkins Square Records

This is my biggest stretch. The only connection to Christmas we have here is the Christian center of this music. When I Reach that Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel 1926 -1936 is assembled from curator Christopher King's private collection, a collection previously responsible for Tompkins Square releases Let Me Play This For You,: Rare Cajun Recordings and Charlie Poole and the High Landers: The Complete Paramount and Brunswick Recordings, 1929 and the splendid Mama, I'll Be Long Gon: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin, 1929-1934).

Once collectors snatched up all of the blues recording s of the period, collectors looked for other genre and King is the leader of this new breed of collector. This present set exists as an excellent addition to Mike McGonigal's trio of collections: Fire in My Bones, This May Be My Last Time Singing and Nashboro: I Heard the Angels Singing, all released on the label. It is Gospel music, but not that well-behaved, pasteurized variety. This is seething and unhinged, blaring out from 80 years of hard times an trouble, sanctified and southern fried. This is music of the true believers. Believe that.

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