wed 16/08/2017

Classical CDs Weekly: Christmas 2016 (part 1) | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Christmas 2016 (part 1)

Classical CDs Weekly: Christmas 2016 (part 1)

Six of this year's most entertaining and life-enhancing seasonal discs

Vocal Group Concert Clemens and Carsten Seyer-Hansen


Bach: Christmas Oratorio Windsbacher Knabenchor, Deutsche Kammer-Virtuosen Berlin/Karl Friedrich Beringer (Cantatas 1-3) and Martin Lehman (nos. 4-6) (Sony)

Two notable versions of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio have just appeared – John Butt’s will be reviewed next week. This one uses modern instruments, though the Deutsche Kammer-Virtuosen Berlin’s playing is never muddy, the crisp articulation and brightness of tone frequently suggesting that they’re a period band in disguise. There are also two conductors, the work’s two halves were taped in the same venue four years apart. Not that you’d notice; the one constant is the marvellous Windsbacher Knabenchor. Sample the opening section of the fifth cantata: burbling oboes and bouncy strings setting the scene for a choral entry of mindbending loveliness. The soloists are good, especially soprano Julia Böhnert and tenor Markus Schäfer, and we really do get the best of both worlds: instrumental and choral perfection tinged with smart period sensibility. Trumpets are superb, the quieter chorales heartstopping. Unassumingly marvellous, and a first choice if you’re after a modern-instrument version.

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Stravinsky: Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Dmitrij Kitajenko (Oehms Classics)

New versions of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet have become a Christmas fixture. I’m fond of recent recordings by Rattle and Neeme Järvi, both now challenged by competing accounts from Valery Gergiev and Dmitrij Kitajenko. Kitajenko’s Cologne discs showcase some exquisite orchestral playing from the Gürzenich-Orchester, though the performance takes a few numbers to get into its stride. Reach the Waltz of the Snowflakes and it takes wing, helped by a peerless boys choir. The smaller numbers ooze charm; the Arabic and Chinese Dances are delightful, though the Cologne cornet soloist in the Spanish Dance is no match for Järvi’s Bergen player. The expansive strings and harp theme which opens the Pas de deux is nicely done. There’s an apt coupling in the form of the Divertimento extracted by Stravinsky from his Fairy’s Kiss ballet, itself based on Tchaikovsky piano music. All performed with affection, and beautifully recorded.

Alison Balsom In Jubilo: Music by Bach, Corelli, Torelli and Fasch (Warner Classics)

This entertaining collection has a seasonal feel, and it also offers an instructive demonstration of different trumpet playing techniques, Alison Balsom switching from baroque natural to a modern valved instrument between tracks. Her distinct sound remains recognisable in each work, though it’s difficult not to find the baroque trumpet’s brazen brilliance rather more attractive. Moving from the trills and flourishes of Fasch’s tiny Concerto in D to Balsom’s veiled, legato delivery of a pair of Bach chorales arranged for valve trumpet and organ is striking. A sonata for natural trumpet and strings by Torelli sounds terrific, along with an entertaining arrangement of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. A version of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring sounds a little smooth by comparison, despite classy vocal support from the Choir of King’s College under Stephen Cleobury. All enjoyable though, the solo works accompanied by the Academy of Ancient Music.

 A Christmas Celebration Hallé Orchestra and choirs/Stephen Bell (Hallé)

Much of this anthology is cheese, but it’s premium quality cheese. Nigel Hess’s infuriatingly catchy A Christmas Overture fuses more seasonal tunes than it’s feasible to count, in less than eight minutes. Most of Stephen Bell’s collection was recorded live at last year’s Hallé carol concert. It’s brilliantly performed by an orchestra under-appreciated outside its home turf, and the choral singing, especially from the Hallé’s Youth and Children’s Choirs is impressive. Carols like O Holy Night and Harold Darke’s version of In The Bleak Midwinter sound sumptuous enough, but it’s the novelties which kept me returning to the disc. Items like the waltz from Prokofiev’s late children’s cantata Winter Bonfire deserve to become staples, along with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Dance of the Tumblers. There’s a snatch of John Williams (taken from soundtrack to Home Alone) and a goofy Fairytale Sleighride by another film composer, Adam Saunders. Daftest is an arrangement of Marta Lynn Keen’s Christmas on the Beach at Waikiki. It's as silly as you'd hope, and I’ve been humming it for weeks. Great fun.

There Is No Rose – Christmas in the 21st Century Vocal Group Concert Clemens/Carsten Seyer-Hansen (Orchid Classics)

Equally appealing is this wondrous collection from a superb Danish choir, the selling point being that none of the carols was composed before 2000. Which isn’t quite true; we get Paul Hillier’s fun arrangement of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and there’s an astonishing, spare transcription of a Carl Nielsen song by the young Danish composer Nadja Marie Schmedes Enevoldsen. Equally arresting is Ola Gjeilo’s arrangement of Holst’s In the Bleak Midwinter, the background murmurings of “winter, winter” powerfully effective. Richard Causton’s haunting Cradle Song is exquisite, and we get the better-known O Radiant Dawn by James MacMillan. Alan Bullard’s And all the stars looked down is magical, and there are three contrasting arrangements of the traditional German carol Es ist ein Ros. Every track a winner, the whole disc beautifully engineered.

Song of the Nativity The Sixteen/Harry Christophers (Coro)

The MacMillan and Bullard carols also turn up on this collection from Harry Christophers' The Sixteen, their sharper contours smoothed a little by a warmer, more resonant acoustic. This is a wider-ranging anthology, taking in music composed over six centuries. The earliest traditional carols included pack a huge punch, The Saviour’s Carol and A Gallery Carol among the most moving. One-time King’s College organist Boris Ord is represented by his only published work, Adam lay ybounden. Which, beautiful though it is, doesn’t linger in the mind in the same way as Howard Skempton’s more recent setting does. Alec Roth’s glorious Song of The Shepherds was new to me, along with Bob Chilcott’s touching The Shepherd’s Carol. Irresistible stuff. And handsomely produced, with full texts and appealing sleeve art.

Read more of Graham Rickson's Classical CDs Weekly column on theartsdesk

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