One cannot go wrong with traditional Christmas holiday music whether rendered by choir, college glee club, brass quintet, or America's own Leroy Anderson.
Naxos Carol Collection
This collection is a no-brainer. Naxos has recorded, assembled and released a number of holiday discs since its founding in 1987. The Naxos Carol Collection is the logical outgrowth and repackaging of this music in an extensive survey release. The collection is made up of 50 holiday favorites from the Naxos library. Well represented in the collection is Edward Higginbottom's Messiah, 1751 Version, with the Academy of Ancient Music (Naxos, 2006). All excerpts from Messiah on the Naxos Carol Collection derive from this performance. The performance is vibrant and the edition historic.
Other Naxos releases represented include Noel Edison and The Elora Festival Singers' The Mystery of Christmas (Naxos, 1998): "Ding Dong Merrily on High," "Silent Night," "God is With Us" and "What Sweeter Music." Donald Hunt and the Worcester Cathedral Choir's Christmas Carols (Naxos, 1994) provide the standard fare of "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "In the Bleak Midwinter," "Joy to The World" and "In dulci jubilo." These offer a broad sampling of both contemporary and traditional carol treatments that are both informative and enjoyable.
Of valuable inclusion here is Anthony Pitts and Tonus Peligrinus' A Naxos Book of Carols (Naxos, 2003). This collection was commissioned by Naxos of Pitts. The result is a fresh reading, in the form of new Antony Pitts arrangements of "Away in a Manger," "I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In," "We Three Kings of Orient Are" and "Personent Hodie." The inclusion of these Pitts recordings alone make the collection of high quality, but consider the wealth of holiday music here, in one place, and the package becomes that much more attractive.
Visit Naxos Records on the web.
Straight No Chaser
Straight No Chaser is the the secular Chanticleer. Rather than specializing in Ancient and Baroque music, the a cappella SNC entertains with a variety of modern classics from "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" to "Africa." Emerging from Indiana University, where the tentet came together in 1996 under the leadership of Don Ponce, the male a cappella group became a renewable resource on the IU campus. In 2006 IU slated a reunion concert for the original members SNC. In celebration, and using the newest technology, original member Randy Stine posted clips from a 1998 SNC concert and the group became a YouTube sensation.
Christmas Spirits is a logical evolution for the group. Their popular mainstream repertoire is impressive and its approach to holiday classics is equally so. The arrangements tend toward the modern treatments of these songs. "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" mirrors Bruce Springsteen's treatment. "Jingle Bell Rock" fairly replicates the original by Bobby Helms except that it is completely a cappella. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" is deftly interpolated with "Angel's We have Heard on High" in perhaps the most impressive arrangement of the classic carols on the disc.
"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is one of the pieces that made the group famous on YouTube and can be found at that site. The invention of Righard Gregory and Dan Ponce is to be celebrated. It is safe to say that this is not Mitch Miller. In fact, Mitch Miller never got into the building. Straight No Chaser capture the holiday spirit perfectly on Christmas Spirits. I suspect that this disc will find its way into many collections that sport Chanticleer, Ray Coniff and, yes, Mitch Miller. This is holiday music to smile to.
Visit Straight No Chaser on the web.
The Synergy Brass Quintet
Heads Up Records
This quintet of young brass players are the rock stars of the classical music world. Their YouTube presence is indeed impressive and their visual appeal is readily apparent. But the visual aspect of the group is not the present concern. Christmas is an exuberantly executed collection of canonical holiday pieces, presented with blinding brightness. This is how instrumental holiday music, particularly the religious pieces, is supposed to sound. Just as God has a sense of humor and a creative appreciation, Synergy has no qualms appealing to either...creatively.
Like the Naxos set, this collection has no clinkers. All of the pieces are already programmed into our collective unconscious, and have become part of us. What Synergy does is present them with precision and accuracy, sharp as a razor and clear as a bell. The barn-burners "Ding Dong Merrily on High," "Joy to the World," "Deck the Halls" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" are treated as such, with great definition and grace. The "Coventry Carol" and "Sussex Carol" are expansively played as if in a cavernous room. The effect is like the bloom of a flower.
The crux of the disc is in the American Spiritual "I Wondered as I Wandered" and the traditional "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." These two pieces are arranged and played plaintively, with the weariness of great hope, long travel, and dashed faith. "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" features the lone wail of the trombone, John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, announcing the coming of Christ. The song then transfoms into a Middle Eastern soundscape filled with rumbling change revelation. There is nothing square about this brass band.
Visit The Synergy Brass Quintet on the web.
BBC Concert Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin
Leroy Anderson: Sleigh Ride and Other Holiday Favorites
Leroy Anderson (1908-1975) was a prominent American composer best known for his light orchestral writing and arranging. He is best know as the composer of the canonical holiday classic, "Sleigh Ride," which was debuted on record in 1949 by Arthur Fiedler and The Boston Pops Orchestra. Fiedler was a great champion of Anderson's music and recorded many of his compositions. On the present recording, Leonard Slatkin leads the BBC Concert Orchestra through several of Anderson's more notable holiday compositions and arrangements.
The disc opens appropriately enough with the title song. Slatkin recreates the brassy splendor of the Boston Pops, framing Anderson's most famous piece properly: with serious consideration and great joyfulness. Two lengthy carol suites are included. It is easy to hear these and imagine them being performed on a Saturday on the television in black and white. The first is Anderson's "Suite of Carols for Brass Choir," a brightly lit and articulated romp through the holiday canon. The second suite is of carols for string orchestra.
The difference between the two suites illustrates the obvious tonal differences between brass and strings. "Suite of Carols for Brass Choir" is exuberant and extroverted where the "Suite of Carols for String Orchestra" is introverted and contemplative. Anderson's arrangement of "Angel's We Have Heard on High" (here "Angels in Our Fields") and "O Sanctissima" exquisitely manifest the "America" in American, exuding the collective personality of the American composers of Anderson's generation. This is the music of the American Christmas experience.
Tracks and Personnel
Naxos Carol Collection
Tracks: O come, all ye faithful (Adeste, fideles); Messiah, HWV 56 (1751 Version): Part I: Chorus: For unto us a Child is born; Unto us is born a Son (arr. David Willcocks); Once in Royal David's City: The Golden Spinning Wheel (Das goldene Spinnrad / Le rouet d'or), Op. 109; Joy to the world: The Noon Witch, B. 196, Op. 108; The first Nowell (arr. David Willcocks); Ding-dong merrily on high (French): Ding, Dong, Merrily On High; In the bleak midwinter; In dulci jubilo (arr. Robert L. Pearsall); Hark the herald angels sing (arr. David Willcocks); The holly and the Ivy; Angels from the realms of glory (arr. David Willcocks); Babe of Bethlehem; Away in a manger (arr. A. Pitts); Deck the Hall; As with gladness men of old; Messiah, HWV 56 (1751 Version): Part I: Chorus: And the glory of the Lord; Sussex Carol (arr. G. Rossiter); Silent night; O Little Town of Bethlehem; Gabriel's Message (arr. David Willcocks); The Shepherds' Farewell; God Is With Us - A Christmas Proclamation; Angels from the realms of glory (arr. David Wilcocks); Jesus Christ the Apple Tree; Coventry Carol; Christus: There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob: There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob; I saw three ships come sailing in (arr. A. Pitts); Here We Come a-Wassailing (arr. John Ritter); Sweet Little Jesus Boy; We three kings of Orient are (arr. A. Pitts); God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (arr. David Willcocks); A Spotless Rose; Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day; Trolka (Sleigh Ride From Lt. Kije); Noel Ukrainien / Carol of the Bells; Personent hodie (arr. A. Pitts); Good King Wenceslas; What Sweeter Music O Little One Sweet (arr. J. S. Bach); Star in the South (arr. Malcolm Sargent): Star in the South; Rocking; Infant Holy (arr. David Wilcocks): Infant Holy; Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248: Brich an, O schones Morgenlicht: Brich an, O schones Morgenlicht; The Cherry Tree Carol (arr. Donald Hunt); Of the Father's heart begotten (arr. A. Pitts); Christmas Oratorio: Part VI, BWV 248: Part VI: Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen; O Helga natt (Cantique de Noel, O Holy Night); Messiah, HWV 56 (1751 Version): Part II: Chorus: Hallelujah.
Tracks: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town; Jingle Bell Rock; The Christmas Song; This Christmas; Christmas Wish; Medley: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing/Angels We Have Heard On High; Little Saint Nick The 12 Days Of Christmas [Live]; Indiana Christmas; Sweet Little Jesus Boy; Christmas (Baby Please Come Home); Carol Of The Bells; Silent Night; Auld Lang Syne.
Personnel: Straight No Chaser.
Tracks: Ding Dong Merrily On High; Hark the Herald Angels Sing; Intro; O Come All Ye Faithful; Deck the Halls With Boughs of Holly; Joy to the World; Coventry Carol; Sussex Carol; I Wonder As I Wander; O Come O Come Emmanuel; The First Noel; Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming; Angels We Have Heard On High; Good Christian Men Rejoice; Carol of the Bells; Magi Virderunt Stellam; Once In Royal David's City; Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies; It Came Upon a Midnight Clear; Ring the Bells; Wassail Song; We Three Kings of Orient Are; Puer Natus In Bethlehem (BuxWV 217); Puer Natus In Bethlehem; Ave Maria; Intro; See Amid the Winter's Snow; Silent Night.
Personnel: John Hurrell: french horn; Rachel Rodriquez: trumpet; Bobby Thorp: trumpet; Jordan Witt: trompone; Jesse Schavez: tuba.
Leroy Anderson: Sleigh Ride and Other Holiday Favorites
Tracks: Sleigh Ride; Horse and Buggy; Song of the Bells; Suite of Carols (version for brass); The Waltzing Cat; A Christmas Festival; The Golden Years; Suite of Carols (version for woodwinds): I. Angels in our Fields; Suite of Carols (version for woodwinds): II. O Sanctissima; Suite of Carols (version for woodwinds): III. O Come, O Come Emmanuel; Suite of Carols (version for woodwinds): IV. O Come, Little Children; Suite of Carols (version for woodwinds): V. Coventry Carol; Suite of Carols (version for woodwinds): VI. Patapan; China Doll; Bugler's Holiday; Suite of Carols (version for string orchestra): Suite of Carols (version for strings).
Personnel: BBC Concert Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin.