Music for the Holidays
Neither industry doldrums nor global warming can stop the flow of holiday releases. Jazz, pop, classical, and a stretch for Hanukkah - here’s our annual helping for 2013.
John Fahey "Christmas Guitar Soli" (Fantasy CD) Recorded between 1968-83, these lovely, simple versions of holiday tunes chime with the scintillating yet surprisingly innocent sound of Fahey’s acoustic steel-string guitar. A companion to Fantasy’s recent LP reissue of The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album, which sold 100,000 copies in 1968, the album’s spirit is a welcome antidote to overhyped commercialism.
New York Voices "Let It Snow" (Five Cent Records) The New York Voices quartet has a joyful time celebrating its 25th anniversary with jazz-inflected arrangements of traditional carols and 20th-century secular classics, both a cappella and accompanied. Many have a retro, post-Andrew Sisters feel, including a delightful "Holiday for Strings" and a sweet "Sleepers, Wake!" that sounds like the Swingle Singers come home. Perfect for sipping eggnog while gazing nostalgically at photos of Rockefeller Center.
Gil and Orli Shaham "Nigunim - Hebrew Melodies" (Canary Classics) One of San Francisco’s favorite violinists, Gil Shaham, joins his pianist sister Orli on this collection of Hebrew melodies. The title refers to Avner Dorman’s Violin Sonata #3, Nigunim, which the Shahams jointly commissioned with the 92nd St. Y. Based on the common elements of Jewish melodies throughout the world, Dorman’s sonata is filled with haunting multi-cultural beauty. It also seems right at home with works by Bonime, Achron, Zeitlin, Bloch (Baal Shem), and Williams (Schindler’s List).
J.S. Bach "Christmas Oratorio" BWV248 - Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Stephen Layton cond. (Hyperion) Any new recording of Bach’s collection of six oratorios for the Christmas season is cause for celebration. This one opens with such lively and precise rhythms and such full percussion that the ear immediately warms to the prospect of two CDs filled with Bach’s incomparable melodies and counterpoint. The soloists - soprano Katherine Watson, countertenor Iestyn Davies, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Matthew Brook - are first-class. Every track is a wondrous discovery.
Karrin Allyson "Yuletide Holiday" (Kasrecords1) Jazz great and former Oaklander Karrin Allyson breaks loose with her first Christmas album. Allyson kicks off with a lovely tune of her own, co-written with Chris Casswell, and proceeds to mix other original songs and a few beloved classics ("Winter Wonderland," "Let it Snow," Vince Guaraldi’s "Christmas Time is Here") with gems from Bill Evans, Patty McGovern, Mel Torme, and Dave Frishberg. Karrin is in great voice, and radiates heartwarming energy that hits the spot.
Vince Guaraldi Trio "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (Concord) It’s been around 100 times, and never lost its freshness. This time you can get the late San Francisco pianist Guaraldi’s beloved gem in a special green-vinyl LP pressing, as well as in a 24-bit Snoopy Doghouse Edition CD remastering from the master tapes, accompanied by a 20-page booklet filled with iconic images and in-depth liner notes.
Tchaikovsky/Ellington & Strayhorn "Nutcracker Suites" - Harmonie Ensemble/New York, Steve Richman, cond. (Harmonia Mundi) This is so cool: pairing a zippy performance of gay Tchaikovsky’s beloved Nutcracker Suite from 1892 with Duke Ellington and gay Billy Strayhorn’s hip alternative from 1960. True, the wildest things about the jazz redo are the titles. Try, for starters, "Sugar Rum Cherry" instead of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." Richman’s Tchaikovsky performance is stronger on zip than charm, but how can you resist such a fun pairing?
Emily Mitchell "A Harp for Christmas" (Albany) In lovely arrangements by gay flautist and composer Gary Schocker, harpist Emily Mitchell plays simple, well-known tunes in the most unaffected manner imaginable. The loving touch that launched Mitchell’s career decades ago is as sweet as ever.
Canadian Brass "Christmas Time is Here" (Steinway & Sons) If you find solo harp too subdued, or fear that you’ll sleep through Santa’s arrival, try the Canadian Brass. They’re not in the least blaring - you can’t have such a long career without honing your warm, musical sound to perfection - and they’re certainly alive to the swinging and at times humorous potential of their five instruments. With plenty of opportunities to smile, this is a great recital from a great ensemble.
Friar Alessandro "Voice of Joy" (Decca) OMG, not only is Friar Alessandro Brustenghi cute as hell, but he also has a lovely voice. Admittedly, Adam’s "O Santa Notte" and Gounod’s "Ave Maria" are a bit of a stretch for him, but lower in his range, his more relaxed sound is very fine. The thankfully tasteful accompaniments complement the Friar’s touching, openhearted sincerity.
The Sixteen "Palestrina Vol. 4" (Coro) Who can imagine Christmas without the heavenly sounds of Renaissance music? This Christmas-themed disc has as its centerpiece a work of expansive, sacred beauty, the master of polyphony’s rarely heard Missa O Magnum Mysterium. Also included are three double-choir motets and excerpts from Palestrina’s setting of The Song of Songs, Hebrew love poetry that, in Renaissance times, was ironically used to praise the Virgin Mary.
Govannen "Celtic Christmas" (Paradise Music) The instruments are authentic, the acoustic expansive, and the arrangements a curious case of Celtic Homeland meets New Age spaciness, with some lively drumming, clapping, and thigh-slapping energy thrown in for very good measure. The closing hybrid of Celtic dancing meets "Jingle Bells" is a hoot.
RÓS "Songs of Christmas" - Det Norske Solistkor (BIS SACD) This collection of traditional and modern Christmas music, some from Norway, deserves praise for the quality of the recording and the beauty of the singing. Under the direction of Grete Pedersen, the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, sometimes supported by violin, lute and double bass, gifts us with one of the freshest and most haunting holiday recitals of the year.