Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Exploring the CD Collection, #9 (Christmas Edition)

Like most folks, I expect, I own a number of Christmas music CDs that I dig out every year at this time. My collection therein isn't terribly large, at about twenty discs or so. I'm not one to grab every Christmas CD released by every artist whose work I may enjoy out there, unless someone comes along and strongly recommends them to me. I have all of the "usual suspects", of course -- a coupld of "Christmas Greatist Hits" CDs, with stuff like "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and "Jingle Bell Rock". (Also, unfortunately, including such horrific items as that song about the kid wanting his two front teeth and those evil, evil Chipmonks.) And yes, I have the Bing Crosby Christmas album that everybody else on the planet owns. But I have some treasures among the remainder of the collection. Here are some of those.

The Many Moods of Christmas
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Robert Shaw, conductor

This is a re-recording, made in the early 1980s, of an album recorded by Robert Shaw and his Festival Chorus in the 1960s for the RCA label. It's pretty straightforward stuff: four lengthy suites of traditional Christmas carols and hymns. All the favorites are here: "Silent Night", "Away in a Manger", "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing", and so on. It's very "traditional" sounding. Sometimes you just want an orchestra, a full chorus, and an organ doing your Christmas music, and that's what this is. (I've never heard the original RCA recording, but I'd like to for comparison's sake.)

Christmas Fantasy
Choir of Winchester Cathedral, Waynflete Singers, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
David Hill, conductor

One of the eddies of classical music that consistently yields me the most pleasure is that of the British composers of the first half of the twentieth century, led by Ralph Vaughan Williams. English folk music formed the basis of this most distinctive of Nationalist schools, thus giving many works of the era a feeling of being both modern and very old. This disc features settings of Christmas songs, carols and hymns by composers like Vaughan Williams, Peter Warlock, Frederick Delius, and John Ireland. The disc concludes with the magical Christmas cantata In terra pax by Gerald Finzi.

As is usually the case with good recordings of lesser-known classical repertoire, I believe that this one is out of print. It was on the Decca/London label.

Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker (complete)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Mariss Jansons, conductor

I doubt that the Christmas collection of a classical music lover is complete without a version of Tchaikovsky's ballet. This is a pretty good version of it, in a boxed set from the EMI label. It's a pretty lavish production, apparently intended for young listeners: it includes a full-color storybook of the ballet, which also has helpful notes for following along in the music, to the point that it describes what instruments are playing at each juncture.

A bunch of sets of Tchaikovsky ballets like this came out in the early and mid 1990s, some of which include things like cardboard punchouts of the ballet characters to be placed in front of gatefold backdrop displays. It was a pretty nifty way of packaging classical music for the younger set, I thought.

(If, on the other hand, you don't want the whole ballet and would just as soon settle for the abridged ballet suite, the one on this disc, with the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal conducted by Charles Dutoit, is a good one.)

The Christmas Album
The Canadian Brass

Even though I'm a former brass player, I have never been a terribly big fan of the Canadian Brass, for some reason. They are impeccable musicians, which might actually be the source of my ambivalence: such control over these instruments just isn't natural. (In general, though, I never really warmed to the sound of a brass quintet, even when I played in one. It just didn't feel as versatile as a string quartet to me.)

Still, this is a pretty entertaining listen, especially for the humorous take on "The Twelve Days of Christmas". It's good for a switch now and then.

The Bells of Dublin
The Chieftains

This CD isn't billed as a Christmas disc per se, but as it contains many a Christmas tune, that's what I consider it. Although I'm not sure about the original song here called "The St. Stephens Day Murders". That one's pretty odd. It's the Chieftains, though, so the disc is a good one.

Peace on Earth

This is a remnant of my "New Age" phase from my college years, which I have mostly outgrown. But I still play this one every year, just because I find it very nicely done. And the picture on the booklet is just beautiful.

New Year's Concert from Vienna
Kathleen Battle, soprano
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Herbert von Karajan, conductor

As I noted last January 1st, very year I watch the New Year's Concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, when it airs on PBS on January 1st. This CD is from the 1987 concert, which was one of the best. Herbert von Karajan, who died just two years later, leads the VPO in a series of performances that are lighter than air.

I'm not sure if this one is in print, either. It's on the Deutsche Grammophon label.

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