Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Classical Christmas from Naxos

The good people at Naxos of America provided me with four of their new Christmas releases for the 2015 holiday season.  Naxos is a distributor of classical music in the United States and Canada.  Scrolling through their website you'll come across Wagner, Sibelius, Vivaldi, Phillip Glass, Saint-Saens, and many more.  Naxos has 14 new classical holiday releases this year, and it is my pleasure to provide a few thoughts about a sampling of their product.

First up is "Magnificat: Christmas Cantata 63" by J.S. Bach.  According to the 48-page (!!!) CD insert, the recording is a reconstruction of Bach's first Christmas in Leipzig, Vespers in the Nikolaikirch, December 25, 1723.  The recording is by the Dunedin Consort, directed by John Butt, and featuring sopranos Julie Doyle and Joanne Lund, mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson, tenor Nicholas Mulroy, and bass-baritone Matthew Brook.

I am no expert in classical music, and am not knowledgeable enough to write a detailed critical review of the recording. However, I can tell you that, as a fan of nearly all types, styles, and genres of Christmas music, this is an excellent record.  Celebrations of Christmas through music have a history centuries long, and preserving the spiritually moving compositions from the past is a crucial task.  We, as Christmas music fans, must recognize with much appreciation the music that preceded our list of 'classics'.  "Magnificat" was first performed over 200 years before what we consider classic Christmas songs.  To me, everyone who considers themselves to be a true Christmas music aficionado must return to the earliest compositions as an appreciation of the sounds of the season.  This recording of the Leipzig Vespers is a meditation.  Listen on a quiet night, low light, just you and the music.

Next up is "Christmas in Medieval England" a live performance recording by Blue Heron, featuring Scott Metcalf (harp, director) and an ensemble of ten vocalists.  This album features 17 tracks grouped into four sections: "Advent", "Annunciation", "Christmas Eve", and "Christmas".  "Magnificat" was music from 1723.  "Christmas in Medieval England" is comprised of music from England in the 1440s.  1440s!  Talk about getting back to the roots of Christmas music.

With only vocals accompanied by harp on selected songs, "Christmas in Medieval England" is a pleasure of minimal arrangement, relying on the extraordinary talents of the singers to deliver a Christmas musical message from the ages past.  Being overly effusive in my comments seems counter to the sublime, relaxed, simple melodies and the focused performance of these dedicated musicians.  If Christmas music from this era is your thing, you'll love Blue Heron's record.  If you're not familiar with medieval music but are willing to try, this is an excellent place to start.

The third selection is "Rundumadum" by Grassauer Blechblaser.  This record raises the bar for this reviewer, as the liner notes are nearly exclusively in German.  Der Bingle, contrary to the country of origin of the nom de plume, does not speak German.  Ironically, a referenced website on the insert is Trust Your Ears.  So, I must completely trust my ears for this review.

And my ears like what they hear.  "Rundumadum" is primarily a brass ensemble, with accompanying percussion on some tracks, and a few added vocals here and there.  Brass ensemble recordings can become muddy, a blur of sound.  The songs here, though, are crisp and clean, well performed and recorded.  There are a few familiar tunes - "The Christmas Song" jumps out as the 3rd track, "Adeste Fideles" the 5th, and some may recognize "Pastorale".  The remaining selections of the 26 total may not ring familiar, but are high quality, admirable performances.

The last selection is my favorite of the four.  "An English Christmas" by the Westminster Concert Bell Choir, conducted by Kathleen Ebling Shaw, is simply a joy.  There are many vintage vinyl bell choir recordings available, most of which gain an "oh, that's interesting" reaction.  "An English Christmas", though, is an expression of some of the most beautiful Christmas music in my collection.  There are 14 tracks, spanning the ages from the 12th-century "Wexford Carol" to the 20th century, Holst' "In the Bleak Midwinter".  You will recognize many of the songs performed, such as "Greensleeves", "Stille Nacht", Good King Wenceslas", and "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day".  You will also be introduced to lesser or rarely heard songs - "Slumber Song", "On This Day Earth Shall Ring", "Boar's Head Carol" and others.

A highlight of "An English Christmas" is "Wexford Carol", which features Emmanuel Acosta as a tenor soloist.  Listening to the bell choir's performance transports the listener back in time.  Sit back, press play, and imagine no iPhones, no Facebook, no Best Buy or Wal-Mart, no Black Friday Sales, no commercial aspects of the holiday, simply musicians rejoicing in the season.

The packaging and inserts for these CDs add to your musical experience, informing and educating the listener about the music, the history, and the performers, completing the musical experience, or as much so as possible short of attending a live performance.  Naxos of America is to be commended for the quality of their product.  To me, these recordings go beyond simply 'pleasurable' and 'enjoyable' and become 'important' so that we understand the influence of music on the Christmas holiday, going back nearly 1000 years.

Naxos of America - visit their website and browse their catalog

Amazon links:
Bach: Magnificat
Christmas in Medieval England
An English Christmas

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