XMAS V: A Classical Christmas...L'Arte Del Mondo, Phoenix Chorale, Clare College Choir, Capella Romana, The Sixteen

C. Michael Bailey By

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...In dulci jubilo. Classical music always provides a legion of new and old holiday music. This is a year for premiers for both newly composed music and newly discovered old music. Present is music of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. And then, there is always Handel's Messiah.

L'Arte Del Mondo
Assisi Christmas Cantatas
Phoenix Edition

No less than six of the seven compositions collected on Assisi Christmas Cantatas receive their premiere on this recording. Add to this the fact that this music is High Baroque, composed between 1639 and 1768, and the holiday thrill is that much greater. Add to this that the sole non-premiering piece is Archangelo Corelli's Concerto Grosso, Opus 6, No. 8 Fatto per la notte di natale, his famous "Christmas Concerto" added as a teaser, and this collection has all of the trappings of...well...a Christmas party.

Four of the seven pieces were composed by Franciscan clerics, a fact that gives credence to the title of the disc. The Franciscans were a religious order founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209. The Franciscans were devoted to living life a closely as Jesus had during his life. Music is a central part of the Franciscan way of life. The style is decidedly Italian Baroque that will surprise no one. The quality of the composition is quite excellent, particularly the vocal pieces. That we have the premiere of these pieces 200 and 300 years after their composition is musical gravy for jaded travelers.

We must be grateful for the discovery of aged music that has its place in history and can be well performed by the necessary professionals. The Assisi Christmas Cantatas offers extraordinary performances with superb sonics and expansive sound. The Franciscans were a creative and pious lot who wanted to do nothing more than worship. This disc succeeds well in that respect.

Visit L'Arte Del Mondo on the Web.

Phoenix Chorale, Charles Bruffy
Spotless Rose: Hymns to the Virgin Mary
Chandos Records

Marian compositions are always in fashion during the Christmas season. Spotless Rose: Hymns to the Virgin Mary is a collection of mostly 20th century pieces composed for a cappella choir. The most notable composer presented is Benjamin Britten, whose "Hymn to the Virgin" is included. Britten's piece is a brief 2:41 minutes. However, the composer crams as much pathos into that short span of time as Mozart did in his "Ave Verum Corpus," K. 618. Britten uses a very mid-20th century Catholic setting for the piece, making the hymn warm and comfortable.

Fellow British composer Cecilia McDowall's "Three Latin Motets" take more chances, but not so recklessly as to derail the homage to the Blessed Mother. Herbert Howell's "A Spotless Rose" is similar to the Britten piece in its Catholic taste. The piece flows and spreads in sonarity, filling the space between one's ears with a blissful calm.

The collect sports two premieres, Javier Busto's "Two Marian Pieces" and Jean Belmont Ford's "Electa." Busto's compositions float weightless with a holy refinement that shimmers. Busto's sense of the dramatic is potent and effective. Ford's multi-part piece employs a single bass drum with chorus and soloists. It is the most modern sounding of the pieces and is compelling with an internal momentum that quietly propels the pieces. Spotless Rose: Hymns to the Virgin Mary is a most fine veneration of the Blessed Virgin in music.

Visit Phoenix Chorale on the Web.

Clare College Choir, Cambridge, Timothy Brown
John Tavener Ex Maria Virgine

British composer John Tavener is the big daddy of modern choral composition, save for, perhaps, Arvo Part. Tavener is a deep musical mystic well versed in the Ikons and Kontakions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. A little history for perspective: in the 11th century, two large factions of the Christian church had a difference of opinion resulting in a non-heretical break in the Christian church into the Roman Catholic church, with its headquarters in Rome and the Eastern Orthodox church, with its headquarters shared among the Patriarchies of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. It is in the musical tradition of this latter church that John Tavener excels.

Ex Maria Virgine, was commissioned by Timothy Brown in 2005 and the Clare College Choir, Cambridge, who have recorded the selections for the present release. The 10-part piece focuses on the Blessed Virgin, honoring the "Eternal Feminine" as she is honored in Eastern Orthodoxy. Ex Maria Virgine is a difficult piece with flashes of great beauty. Tavener recasts "There is No Rose," "Ding dong Merrily on High" and "Rocking" in jarring fashion. This music is often dissonant and anxious, but relaxes in the final "Verbum Caro."

Tavener's shorter pieces are beautiful. "Birthday Sleep" based on a text by Vernon Watkins, is grand in an ancient style. Tavener soars here. The composer's setting for Yeat's "A Nativity" begins with a darkness that gives way to brightness as the piece unfolds. "O Thou Gentle Light" from the Orthodox liturgy, is the most consonant work and is stunning. Tavener remains, with Ex Maria Virgine the choral composer of note. It is encouraging to realize that music this fine continues to be composed.

Visit Clare College Choir Cambridge on the Web.

Cappella Romana
Kontakion on the Nativity and Carols by Richard Toensing
Cappella Romana

American Richard Toensing also composes in the Eastern Orthodox tradition in choral music. His lengthy piece, "Kontakion on the Nativity," is a lofty, challenging piece with many rewards but at the expense of the listener's undivided attention. The demand on the listener is not unlike that of John Tavener's Ex Maria Virgine reviewed above. However, the beauty in both composers' work is better illustrated in their smaller pieces. In the case of Toensing, his carols possess a charm so captivating one will find his or herself humming them long after the player is turned off.

Toensing's carols also possess a uniquely American sound, a Shaker cadence filtered through Charles Ives. There is a carefully crafted homespun sound to "Isaiah, As He Watched By Night" and "Make Glad, You Righteous." These carols are comfortable and broken in full of consonance and resolution. They carry such a potent essence of Americana that one can smell the turkey dressing listening to them. Toensing's music is a rare treat, even when challenging and more than worth the effort to become familiar with.

Visit Richard Toensing on the Web.

The Sixteen, Harry Christophers
George Frideric Handel: Messiah - The Sixteen Edition
Coro Records

Coro Records was inaugurated in 2001 by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, providing the group with greater artistic freedom and opportunity to pursue a more challenging and broader repertoire without the commercial restraints of major labels. One of the results of these efforts is The Sixteen's second recording of Handel's Messiah. The group's first recording of Messiah was released on Hyperion in 1997. The recording was a superb period instrument, historically informed rendering. Light yet durable singing over the warmth of period instruments made the set very attractive.

Precious few musical director have the opportunity or talent to record Messiah, much less to have done it twice. Nikolas Harnoncourt and his Concentus Musicus Wien released their second Messiah (RCA, 2005) to mixed reviews in spite of the presence of the exquisite Christine Schafer. Will Harry Christophers' fare as well? The short answer is no, the Sixteen's recording is better than Harnoncourt's new one and, in fact bettered their previous 1997 recording by quite a bit. It has been enthusiastically received and will possibly replace several listener's favorite Messiah.

Christophers' soloists on this new recording are both well known to him and are Handel experts in their own right. They solo incandescently, elevating the performance to a level rarely achieved since barnburners like Sir John Eliot Gardiner's (Archiv, 1990) and Richard Wilcox's (Chandos, 1992). The tempo here is of interest as it is decidedly slower than recent period recordings and scholarship might indicate. This in no way detracts from this fine performance. Harry Christophers is a certifiable Handel nut and that is a most good thing.

This is the most satisfying Messiah since Paul McCreesh's with the Gabrieli Consort (Archiv, 1997). Some will consider it the finest. A more through review of other Messiah release is detailed in George Frideric Handel and His Messiah: The Perfect Holiday Collection

Visit The Sixteen on the Web.

Tracks and Personnel

Assisi Christmas Cantatas

Tracks: Benedetti: Cantata Morale per il Santissimo Natale Pastori o voi, Salve Regina; Corelli: Concerto grosso Op. 6 No. 8 in G minor 'fatto per la notte di Natale,' Finale: Oh quam jubilat, motetto per il Santissimo Natale; Lazzari: Sonata Pastorale; Motetto Canto Solo per Natale; Porpora: Stelle lucide; Zucari: Salve Regina.

Personnel: Ruth Ziesak: soprano; Reinhold Friedrich: trumpet; L'Arte Del Mondo, Werner Ehrhardt.

Spotless Rose: Hymns to the Virgin Mary

Tracks: Stephen Paulus (b. 1949): Splendid Jewel; Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): A Hymn to the Virgin; Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951): Three Latin Motets; Herbert Howells (1892-1983): A Spotless Rose; Javier Busto (b. 1949): Two Marian Pieces; Healey Willan (1880-1968): Three Liturgical Motets; Jean Belmont Ford (b. 1939): Electa.

Personnel: Dana Bender, Cassandra Ewer, Laura Inman, Alison Chaney Mauro, Carol Platt Proudfoot, Riki Sloan, Danya Tiller: soprano voices; Andrew DeValk, Erik Gustafson, Stephen Hickman, Kevin Kriegel, Timothy Leffler, Joel M. Rinsema: tenor voices; Cora Blouch, Lyndsay Ermeling, Rita Litchfield Good, Holly Meyer, Amy Perciballi, Kira Rugen, Stephanie Stickford: alto voices; Sean Carter Campbell, Ryan Garrison, Joshua Hillmann, Matthew Scott, David Topping, Phil Yutzy: bass voices.

Ex Maria Virgine

Tracks: Ex Maria Virgine; Birthday Sleep; O, Do Not Move; A Nativity; Marieenhymne; O Thou Gentle Light; Angels.

Personnel: James McVinnie, Simon Thomas Jacobs: organ; Stefan Berkieta: baritone; Clare College Choir, Cambridge; Timothy Brown: director .

Kontakion on the Nativity and Carols by Richard Toensing

Tracks: Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ: A Choral Concerto: I. Proïmion - The Virgin gives birth today; Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ: A Choral Concerto: I. Stanza 1 - Bethlehem has opened Eden; Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ: A Choral Concerto: I. Stanza 2 - The Father of the Mother by intent became her Son; Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ: A Choral Concerto: I. Stanza 3 - O High King, what is there for you among the beggars?; Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ: A Choral Concerto: II. Stanza 4 - As she says such things in the presence of the Ineffable; Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ: A Choral Concerto: II. Stanza 6 - As Mary heard all these astonishing words; Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ: A Choral Concerto: II. Stanza 7 - Since they are your people, O Child; Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ: A Choral Concerto: III. Stanza 8 - Jesus, who is truly the Christ and also our God; Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ: A Choral Concerto: III. Stanza 9 - Receive, then, O Holy Lady; Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ: A Choral Concerto: IV. Stanza 10 - The Magi hastened at once to the inner room; Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ: A Choral Concerto: IV. Stanza 11 - "I will tell you," said Mary to the Magi; Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ: A Choral Concerto: IV. Stanza 22 - Now when She who is blameless saw the Magi; Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ: A Choral Concerto: IV. Stanza 24 (Epilogue) Save the World, O our Savior; O Nations, Let Us Now Prepare (Carol); Isaiah, As He Watched By Night (Carol); What Shall We Call You (Carol); Now hear, O Bethlehem (Carol); The Virgin, as was Said of Old (Carol); O Let Creation All Rejoice (Carol); Now Christ is Born Upon the Earth (Carol); The Rod of Jesse's Root has Bloomed (Carol); The Shepherds in the Fields (Carol); Once Sorrow had Silenced Zion's Harps (Carol); Make Glad, You Righteous (Carol).

Personnel: Cappella Romana.


Tracks: Parts I, II, and III.

Personnel: Christopher Purves, Robert Evans, Simon Birchall, Katy Bircher, Andrew Lawrence-King, Sarah Connolly, Carolyn Sampson, Elin Manahan Thomas, Lynda Russell, Lynne Dawson, Mark Padmore, Crispian Steele-Perkins: performers; The Sixteen; Harry Christophers: director.

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