Behold, a critic shall conceive, and share his thoughts. Of the 48 season-related CDs and DVDs that arrived at Casa Bellecci-Serinus this year--heed my prayer, Oh Lord, no more!--here’s my pick of the best.
Various ArtistsSwing Time Christmas(NTI)
Classic, well-remastered swing and R&B takes on the holidays, recorded between 1947 and 1953. Musicians include Big Joe Turner, Mabel Scott (her “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” was No. 12 on the R&B charts in 1948), Dexter Gordon, Charles Brown and others. What’s not to like?
Troyke, a champion of Jewish music, has assembled a wonderful collection of Yiddish songs, many of which were previously unknown and unrecorded. Troyke learned the songs from Sara Bialas-Tenenberg, who at age 13 was incarcerated in the Treblinka concentration camp. Somehow she survived, carrying within her memories of songs she learned during WWII and in the years following her liberation. The songs, many laden with suffering and pain, remind us of the consequences of the religious insanity that again threatens world stability. I was going to say “world peace,” but I don’t think so. That has yet to come.
Various ArtistsBroadway Cares: Home for the Holidays(Centaur Entertainment)
If the fact that all the profits from this album are donated to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is not sufficient cause to purchase it, how about performances by Liza Minnelli, Sam Harris, Adam Pascal, Lea DeLaria, Billy Porter, Audra McDonald and 14 other pros? Though some of the interpretations sound more Broadway footlights than Christmas holy, there’s lots of good stuff to enjoy.
Santa Fe Desert ChoraleChristmas in Santa Fe(Clarion)
Recorded in live concert at Santa Fe’s Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, the 20-member chorale, under the direction of Linda Mack, does a superb job singing seasonal music written and arranged by Rutter, Britten, Mechem, Conrad Susa and others. All save the token Jewish prayer are in English. With some selections accompanied by harpist Rosalind Simpson, choral enthusiasts and lovers of the season need not hesitate.
The Cambridge SingersLighten Our Darkness: Music for the Close of Day(Collegium)
Under the direction of the renowned John Rutter, The Cambridge Singers perform 18 a cappella choral motets, mainly from the Renaissance, written to accompany evening worship services in Catholic monastic and collegiate communities. That three copies of this CD arrived on my doorstep serves as a sign that, even though this gorgeous music isn’t Christmas per se, its serene beauty, superbly captured in the resonant Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral, will swathe you in loveliness and grace. Highly recommended.
Anonymous 4Gloryland(Harmonia Mundi)
Time traveling once again, the best-selling American women’s vocal quartet Anonymous 4 journeys far from their usual hangout--the medieval monastery--to the birthplace of America’s folks songs, spirituals, revival songs and gospel hymns. The voices, acoustic and occasional accompaniment from fiddler Darol Anger and multi-stringer Mike Marshall are irresistibly fetching, and the accents are amusing in a homely sort of way. A great alternative to another disc of well-worn carols.
Various ArtistsChristmas Break: Relaxing Jazz for the Holidays(Telarc)
Once you learn its contents--12 mostly smooth, flowing tracks by Oscar Peterson, Mel Tormé, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, George Shearing, Ray Brown, Al di Meola, Jeanie Bryson, Kenny Baron and Jim Hall--you’ll know why this excellently recorded compilation is destined to be a classic. Unless you feel incomplete without high drama, absolutely don’t hesitate.
Boris Karloff and the Vienna State Opera OrchestraProkofieff's Peter and the Wolf
At last! The perfect gift for young and old alike, a reissue of Boris Karloff’s classic 1957 narration with Mario Rossi conducting the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Instead of sounding as though he’s going to suck blood, the 70-year old Karloff (née William Henry Pratt) is infinitely charming. Complete with Prokofiev’s justly popular "Lieutenant Kijé Suite," this disc is a must!
Andy StatmanAwakening from Above(Shefa Records Horn)
Andy Statman is an inspired clarinetist whose ecstatic improvisations on Chasidic themes express the mystical nature of Judaism through wild, oft unbridled free flights and leaps into the unknown. Sometimes solo, sometimes with the spare accompaniment of Jim Whitney’s double bass and Larry Eagle’s drums and percussion, Andy’s clarinet celebrates the Divine while inducing altered states (or, at the least, unbridled fascination) in the listener willing to surrender.
Various ArtistsThe Young Messiah: Messiah XXI(DTS DVD)
Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. I’d never suggest that authentic Handelian forces lack soul, but once you hear Gladys Knight sing Handel’s music with surprising classical restraint, then indulge yourself in the likes of Jeffrey Osborne, Roger Daltrey, Chaka Khan, and The Visual Ministry Gospel Choir and Irish Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus, ye shall be purified. This Messiah does not look down; it simply moves us forward in time. Narrator Aiden Quinn adds a generous helping of profundity, and conductor Frank McNamara has a ball. As will you.