sat 02/03/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Christmas CDs 1 | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Christmas CDs 1

Classical CDs Weekly: Christmas CDs 1

Part one of this year's seasonal smörgåsbord: six discs you'd happily spin all year round

Cantus in action: "We take each other's hands and promise to love one another"


Bach christmas oratorio 2Bach: Christmas Oratorio Thomanerchor Leipzig, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Gotthold Schwarz (Accentus)

Another year, another new Bach Christmas Oratorio. This one is happily among the best, its plus points including a slimmed down Leipzig Gewandhausorchester as backing band, and the city's Thomanerchor, a group tracing its history as far back as 1212. The choir's bright, clear timbre sits very nicely against modern orchestral instruments, and Gotthold Schwarz’s flowing speeds invariably hit the mark. Patrick Grahl gives us a very human Evangelist, and there's sterling work from soprano Dorothee Mields and alto Elvira Bill. Several of the bigger numbers have a breezy, extrovert feel; the joyous opening chorus to the 5th Cantata is a good example. A live recording made in Leipzig’s St Thomas Church, it's available as a CD or as a DVD. Documentation and presentation are appealing.

Ballad of Brown KingMargaret Bonds: The Ballad of the Brown King & Selected Songs The Dessoff Choirs & Orchestra/Malcolm J Merriweather, with Ashley Jackson (harp) (Avie)

Born in 1913, Margaret Bonds’ musical skills were honed at a Baptist church in Chicago. She gained admission to study piano and composition at Northwestern University in 1929, an institution which denied black students access to sports facilities and student accommodation. Bonds managed became a prominent teacher and administrator besides composing, though most of her output remains unpublished. The Ballad of the Brown King, written with poet Langston Hughes, tells the story of dark-skinned Balthazar’s journey to Bethlehem, composer and librettist aiming to give “the dark youth of America a cantata which makes them proud to sing.” It's a magical little piece, and one which must be a blast to perform. Gershwin would have approved of the squelchy harmonies in “They Brought Fine Gifts”, and tenor Noah Stewart is excellent in the melting “Could He Have Been an Ethiope?”. It's coupled with three shorter vocal works, nicely sung by Malcolm J Merriweather with harpist Ashley Jackson. A treat – Merriweather’s reduced scoring for the cantata is effective, and the choral singing is excellent.

Septura on AmazonTchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, arranged for Brass Septet Septura, with Derek Jacobi (narrator) (Naxos)

“Brass instruments are a vital part of the festive fabric of Christmas,” writes Septura trombonist Matthew Knight. He's right, and this ingenious brass septet arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s seasonally inflected final ballet is a hoot, in a very good way. The transcriptions, by Knight and trumpeter Simon Cox, are invariably successful. Act 2’s character dances are predictably enjoyable; there's some splendid tuba work in the “Dance of the Mirlitons,” and muted trumpets make for an effective celeste substitute in the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo. And how well this group surmounts the bigger tutti moments. Check out “A Forest of Fir Treed in Winter” and marvel. Derek Jacobi’s useful snippets of narration (taken from Dumas’s Hoffmann adaptation) are tracked separately, making it possible to enjoy the music without interruption. Seriously impressive playing and engineering, and another Naxos bargain.

Jurowski NutcrackerTchaikovsky: The Nutcracker State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov”/Vladimir Jurowski (Pentatone)

Vladimir Jurowski's new full-length Nutcracker was recorded live in Moscow in January. Buy it along with the Septura version: the orchestral playing is sumptuous, and Pentatone manage to squeeze nearly 87 minutes onto a single disc. Jurowski's theatrical instincts mean that this performance has a symphonic sweep, never feeling like a sequence of disconnected numbers. The string harmonics which close the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” are marvellous, and Jurowski's solo winds ooze character. Tchaikovsky's scoring still dazzles; the bassoon line in the “Chinese Dance” here sounds like vintage Stravinsky. You're struck too by Jurowski's gift for phrasing, the lovely opening theme of the “Pas de deux” unusually vocal here. The speeds always feel right – note how well synchronised the offbeat horns are in the tiny coda before the closing waltz. A winner.

FrydFryd Cantus, dir. Tove Ramlo-Ystad (2L)

Fryd means “joy” in Norwegian, and this anthology is an irresistibly upbeat celebration of Christmas, Mary and motherhood. Norwegian amateur choir Cantus began life in 1986, founded by a group of teenage girls who wanted to “sing in a choir where they themselves could be in charge.” Fryd’s 14 tracks encompass folk song, traditional carols and new pieces, the 33-strong choir making an extraordinary, spine-tingling noise at full pelt. If you've endured a tough week, a few seconds of “I denne søte juletid” should put you right, one of several numbers where the group are joined by folk singer Unni Boksasp. Those harmonies. The rhythmic bite. The subtle, spare accompaniments. Blimey - you won't have heard anything quite like it. Other tracks include a sweet Norwegian take on “Silent Night” and a delicious children's song about walking round Christmas trees in the snow. “We take each other's hands and promise to love one another.” I think I'll still be listening to this in August. 2L’s recording has staggering warmth and presence, and there's a bonus Blu-ray audio disc. Bring some fryd into your life today. 

Holy NightO Holy Night London Choral Sinfonia/Michael Waldron (Orchid)

Conductor Michael Waldron suggests that “the world surely does not need another disc of Christmas music…” and here attempts to give us something out of the ordinary. Just five traditional carols crop up in O Holy Night, the other fifteen numbers a selection of less familiar seasonal fare. Several of the traditional carols are heard in new arrangements. John West's understated “Silent Night” is attractive, and Max Pappenheim’s version of “O Holy Night” is a stunner, soprano Katherine Watson joined by a pair of trumpets and rippling piano arpeggios. Jonathan Rathbone’s austere take on the “Coventry Carol” packs a real punch. Everything's appealingly sincere and direct, Waldron and his rich-toned London Choral Sinfonia eschewing the gimmicky and the glib. Scottish composer Thomas Wilson's “There is no rose” is a find, as is Humphrey Clucas’s Christina Rosetti setting, “Love came down at Christmas.” All handsomely sung: there's not a dud track on this album.


Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters