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The Traditional Holidays - 2018

C. Michael Bailey By

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The Monastic Choir of St. Peter's Abbey, Solesmes, France
Gregorian Chant Christmas
Paraclete Records
2018

Paraclete Press continues its re-release of Gregorian Chant from The Monastic Choir of St. Peter's Abbey, Solesmes, France with a 2-CD Christmas offering hot on the heels of their recent release of Melodies I & II (Paraclete Records, 2018). Presently is a set of chants derived from two previous releases Christmas, which features Midnight Mass and the Mass of the Day and Christmas—The Night Office: Vigils. Combined here, the collection offers a broad range of differing chant settings. Of interest here is the latter recording containing the Night Office of Christmas Day. The Night Office is what the Rule of Saint Benedict calls the canonical hour whose celebration, particularly in monasteries, began between 2 and 3 a.m. As part of the Divine Office, the Night Office was considered separately from the seven Day Hours: Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. The seven Day Hours were seen as fulfilling Psalm 118/119:164, "Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules," and the Night Office as fulfilling Psalm 118/119:62, "At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules." This is a quiet celebration of the Great Mystery, whose sound is warm and smells of frankincense and myrrh.

La Petite Bande, Sigiswald Kuijken
Das neugeborne Kindelein: Christmas Cantatas
Accent
2018

While old man Bach will forever have his charm, his contemporaries also have much to say. Collected here on Das neugeborne Kindelein: Christmas Cantatas are Christmas Cantatas by Dieterich Buxtehude and George Philipp Telemann which juxtapose richly against Bach's ownIch freue mich in dir BWV 133. These three composers represent a sort of musical trinity with Bach at the top and Buxtehude and Telemann along the base, representing a two very different, but nevertheless, related musical visions from the old man. The Belgian La Petite Bande, under the direction of Sigiswald Kuijken, who founded the orchestra in 1972, is a period band who has honed the 40 year historically-informed performance practices to a fine edge. Of note his is the beauty and grace imparted Telemann's O Jesu Christ, dein Kripplein ist mein Paradies TVWV 1:1200. It has a slightly older sonic feel, that while not so "Christmassy" is solemn and reverent. The singing is top notch, soprano Anna Gschwend holding sway on the brisk and bright, "Aria; Neugebornes Menschenkind." The collection is closed by Buxtehude' setting for "In dulci jubilo," employing nnly three singers (SAB), two violins and basso continuo make the music. The lyrics are a so-called 'macaronic' mixture of Latin and German and probably originate from the Dominican monk Heinrich Suso (1295/97—1366) and amplified by Michael Praetorius (1571- -1621). It is a splendid way to end a fine Christmas recording.

Choir of Gonville & Calus College, Cambridge, Geoffrey Webber
Cantique de Noël
Delphian
2018

Director Geoffrey Webber and his Choir of Gonville & Calus College, Cambridge are notable for considering the unfamiliar in their projects, and this collection proves no exception. Cantique de Noel is an assembly of traditional French melodies that have been revised to become familiar Christmas melodies in English-speaking countries. However, presently they are presented in the original, both language and arrangements. The result is a Romantic fervor illustrating a facet of Christmas often lost in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the holiday. Represented here is the cream of French classical composition: Hector Berlioz, Gabriel Faure, Charles Gounod, Camille Saint-Saens, Claude Debussy, Jules Massenet, and Cesar Frank. That about sums up the talent pool. Webber's choir is captured spectrally, the sonics both expansive and ethereal. "Cantique de Noël" ("O Holy Night") justifiably opens the disc leading the listener through words meant to be sung as well as spoken. French is a much prettier language sung than Latin or German. Additionally, these French interpretations of French music contain an exuberance and joyfulness not often expressed by their German counterparts. This is music filled with both life and reverence, music of celebration, appreciation and gratitude. A glorious surprise.

Knabenchor collegium iuvenum Stuttgart, Michael Ćulo.
Christmas Lullaby
Carus
2018

Choir director Michael Ćulo programs an internationally ecumenical collection of Christmas music from the Renaissance to the present on Christmas Lullaby. The choir that Ćulo directs, the boys choir Knabenchor collegium iuvenum Stuttgart is based at the Stuttgart cathedral singing school. The ensemble's wheelhouse is found within their broad and deep repertoire over the past 1000 years. This can readily be heard on the present recording. In addition to traditional Christmas Carols, the ensemble excels in modern arrangements of the Canon and newer Christmas songs as recent as the past decade. Ćulo is responsible for instrumental arrangements for flute and organ, for oboe and organ, as well as, providing an inventive program that includes his own compositions alongside those of the Renaissance (Bartholomäus Gesius and Johann Crüger), the Baroque (Johann Sebastian Bach), and more modern composers (Gustav Holtz, John Rutter, and David Willcocks. The choir is expansive and socially captured at some distance. The performances have a decidedly "modern" feel and sound to them, where the individual performances are slightly skewed in one way or another to set things off center, creating a certain tension and drama capable of being very familiar and somewhat foreign at the same time. The effect is both tantalizing and anxiety driven. Listening to this collection is a lot like living life.

The Sixteen, Harry Christophers
A Renaissance Christmas
Coro
2018

Harry Christophers, leading his crack chorus, The Sixteen, allows no dust to settle in programming another superb recital of Christmas music, this time devoted to the Renaissance Period. Following up 2016's Songs of the Nativity (Coro), A Renaissance Christmas, Christophers tightens his focus to a program of Renaissance motets composed between the 14th and 17th Centuries. Christophers uses the 14th Century plainsong, "Resonemus Laudibus" ("Let Sion Resound") as the thread passing through this collection, following the anonymous chant with settings by, Johannes Eccard (1553 —1611), Jacob Handl (1550—1591), and Orlando de Lassus (1532—1594). That is a tidy thematic effect, enhanced by the inclusion of the anonymous plainsongs, "Veni, veni Emmanuel," and "Crudelis Herodes," the set tying up the recital in a well-programmed package of exquisite singing. The Sixteen are captured at a respectable distance, with clarity, warmth, and reverence befitting the season. But not too warm. This music should be experienced with a hint of seasonal chill, as Keats's beadsman in The Eve of St. Agnes. This is old music and should be experienced as such. While the conductor and chorus have made a cottage industry of the Christian Holiday season, they have done so better than anyone else. That is really saying something.

Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki
Verbum caro factum est: A Christmas Greeting
BIS
2018

The true surprise of this holiday seasons' offerings is Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan's Verbum caro factum est: A Christmas Greeting. In keeping with his now complete set of Bach Cantatas and an superb rendering of Handel's holiday mainstay, Messiah (BIS, 1997), this holiday collection is top drawer in every way. Like Harry Christophers' collection above, Maestro Suzuki programs a thread, in this case the organ pieces of French composer Louis-Claude Daquin, from his Nouveau livre de Noëls pour l'orgue et le clavecin (1757), played by Suzuki's son, Masato Suzuki, who also arranged all of the choral settings used. The program is judiciously selected, from the very old (an incandescent "In dulci jubilo") to the delightfully modern rendering of three carols ("Away in a manger / It came upon the midnight Clear / Ding, dong! Merrily on high"). This collection had its origins in the orchestra and chorus' first Christmas concert performed Christmas Eve 2013 in Tokyo's Suntory Hall. The ensuing five years, this same program has occurred and been expanded to something resembling the presentation on this recording. Meticulous notes explain the disc contents and programming, bringing the entire package to a successful and appealing whole.

Sirventes Berlin, Stefan Schuck
Berliner Weihnacht a cappella
Carus
2018

Near perfection. Choral director Stefan Schuck and his Sirventes Berlin ensemble, assemble modern settings for a number of seasonal songs and carols. This choir is beautifully captured, warmly and up close, singing a perfectly selected collection of seasonal songs, most re-imagined harmonically, if not, melodically, setting this project apart from the many surrounding it. Pieces included in this recital are: Carl Thiel's (1862—1939) settings of "In Dulci Jubilo" and "Preis sei Gott im höchsten Throne" and Hugo Distler's (1908—1942) sublime setting of "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen from that composer's powerful Die Weihnachtsgeschichte op. 10 Felix Mendelsshon Bartholdy's (1809—1847) "Im Advent—Lasset uns frohlocken" and "Weihnachten—Frohlocket, ihr Völker" from his Six Motets, Op.79 are treated gently by the cappella choir, founded by director Schuck in 2008. The ensemble and director are regular performers at NoonSong, which can be heard every Saturday at 12 noon in the Berlin church Am Hohenzollernplatz (www.noonsong.de). This release if for the listener wanting something new, yet familiar in a holiday music recording. Sumptuous and fully realized, Berliner Weihnacht a cappella fits the bill nicely.

Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Howard Arman
Johann Sebastian Bach -Motets
BR Classic
2018

Another performance near perfection. Not strictly holiday fare, I will always argue that any JS Bach is suitable for Christmastime (well, save for the Passions). British choral director Howard Arman has had a long association with German orchestras and choruses dating from the early 1980s. His leading of the Chor des Bayerischen Runkfunks has been extended thankfully into the next decade. Presented here are the motets written during Bach's earliest years in Leipzig. These five motets comprise a subgroup of works deserving their own select attention. The motets stand apart from Bach's other sacred music because they were not the result of Bach's composing for the regular church liturgy, but, rather, for private occasion. Arman's direction of the Bavarian Radio Chorus summons an almost embarrassingly intimate performance of these sacred pieces. The choral sound is spacious enough in which to walk around, illustrating Bach's ability to compose for small forces and, equally, Arman's ability to divine such from those same small forces. Beautiful is his rendering of whole of "Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227" which is provided with a compassionate warmth often missing from performances of the motets.

Bachchor Mainz, Bachorchester Mainz, Ralf Otto
Johann Sebastian Bach—Christmas Oratorio -Weihnachtsoratorium
Naxos Records
2018

German choral director Ralph Otto steers his Bachchor Mainz, supported by the period-instrument band Bachorchester Mainz, through a precision performance of JS Bach's staid Weihnachtsoratorium, BWV 245. The choir, founded by Diethard Hellmann in the 1950s, and led by Otto since 1986, has developed a reputation for Renaissance and Baroque, while expanding into newer repertoire, specifically focusing on rarely performed works and contemporary music. What Otto and his musicians bring to Bach's seasonal warhorse is experience and insight and a stickler's taste for accuracy in performance. Just short of regimented, this performance of the Christmas Oratorio is one brimming with exuberance, reverence, and almost unbridled joy. This recording captures an ensemble, chorus, and director enjoying their collective performance of this piece. Soloists Georg Poplutz (t), Julia Kleiter (S), Katharina Magiera (A), and Thomas E. Bauer (B) are uniformly fine, fitting into the overall structure of the performance. The sonics are dry and exact but avoid being clinically sterile because of the obvious excitement of the playing and singing. This recording compares favorably with Otto's previously released recording of the St. John Passion (Naxos, 2018) and offers the great promise of future interpretations by this fine orchestra, chorus and director.

Concert Artist of Baltimore Symphonic Chorale; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Edward Polochick
Handel -Messiah
Naxos Records
2018

Georg Frideric Handel's Messiah is the mainstay, along with Beethoven's Nine Symphonies, and Mozart's Requiem in my personal recording collection. It is the perfect Christmas holiday recording. I try and make it a point to review all released each year around the holidays. This year, a single performance was released, but, oh, what a performance. Throwing caution to the wind, Edward Polochick conducting from the harpsichord, with soloists, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Concert Artists of Baltimore Symphony Chorale commands a beautiful and free-wheeling riot with the oratorio. My initial listening shocked me from my typical listening complacency. The ensemble and soloists are profoundly capable, and coupled with Polochick's gleeful disregard with period instrument and performance concerns produces circumstances that can only be compared to jazz improvisation, except that this is pretty gross hyperbole on my part. Handel's touchstone deserves a bit of fun and these guys provide a load of it.

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