Perhaps due to attempts by the very wrong Christian right to dominate the landscape, more recordings of Christmas music have recently come my way than at any time in the past seven years. Arbitrarily skipping through the pile uncovers choice stuffings for your stocking. Of course, if you’re into pantyhose or dreidels, you may wish to look elsewhere.
Boston Brass and the Brass All-Stars BandThe Stan Kenton Christmas Carols(Summit Records)
Unconventional jazz arrangements from Stan Kenton and Ralph Carmichael feature French horns amongst a complement of brass instruments. The Boston Brass quintet, including many current and former members of Canadian Brass and Empire Brass, are quite a sonorous lot. So too are the new arrangements by J.D. Shaw and Sam Pilafian. Trust me, “Greensleeves” will never be the same. If you can forget classic reverence and ditch sanctimonious piety, this retake on Kenton’s admittedly reluctant undertaking of 1961 may strike the right chord. It won’t be a hushed one, that’s for sure.
Various ArtistsSimply Christmas-- Home for the Holidays(Sony Classical)
Hats off to this assortment of delightful recordings set down between 1989 and 1997. The Boston Brass skillfully hold back to deliver an appropriately mellow rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy,” and the fabulous clarinetist Richard Stoltzman swings his way through the snow on four selections in the company of acoustic bassist Eddie Gomez, harpist Emily Mitchell and others. Ayako Shinozaki’s harp sounds a bit too literal and closely recorded for my taste, but the London Festival Orchestra’s sonority more than compensates. Throw in Michala Petri’s joyful recorder and James Galway fluting away on Handel’s “Pifa,” and you have an ideal disc to put you in the holiday spirit.
The SixteenA Traditional Christmas Carol Collection(Coro)
Famed conductor Harry Christopher’s English choir of 16, at times accompanied by organ, lute and guitar, provides expert renditions of familiar tunes with traditional English words and harmonies. The repackaged 1991 performance would have sounded richer had it either been recorded in analog sound or with today’s advanced digital technology. Still, if it’s a boom box or iPod you’re using, this lovely, unpretentious collection will do just fine.
Mychael DannaThe Nativity Story(New Line Records)
Judging from the score of forthcoming full-length film The Nativity Story, the saga of Mary and Joseph’s life as they traveled to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus was accompanied by substantial bombast. Hearing European instruments from the Middle Ages and Renaissance amidst the flourishes is lovely, but what the lambs in the manger would do with so much Hollywood excess is open to question. Personally, I’d graze in gentler, less artificially inflated environs.
Ralph Vaughan WilliamsChristmas Music(Chandos )
Drama and heart-tugging outpourings that sometimes verge on the saccharine abound in these premiere recordings of famed English composer Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols and On Christmas Night, plus the score to the Nativity Play, The First Nowell. Conductor Richard Hickox, the City of London Sinfonia and the Joyful Company of Singers (how English!) remind us that Hollywood holdeth not the exclusive rights to sentimentality. Baritone Roderick Williams is especially good at laying it on thick. The lighter spread, please.
The Orlando ConsortMedieval Christmas(Harmonia Mundi)
Members of the award-winning Orlando Consort, here augmented by bass Robert MacDonald, sing Christmas music from the medieval secular celebrations and liturgy of England, present-day France and the Low Countries. Organized into groupings entitled “Prophecy,” “New Year’s Day,” “The Carol,” “Narrative Motets” and “Noel,” the recording serves double duty by providing insight into medieval mentality and mindset. Starting with the 11th century’s earliest noted polyphony, and extending through two short works by 15th century composer Antoine Brumel, the collection is self-recommending.
Eton College Chapel ChoirChristmas Music from Eton College(Sanctuary Classics)
This reissue brings even more pleasure than upon its initial release in 2000. The singing by the classic Eton College Chapel Choir of men and boys is exceptional, the acoustics clear and resonant and the selections most unusual. Music ranges from the 16th century (Ockegem) to contemporary (Britten and Taverner). Highest possible recommendation.