Favoured sounds of the season, part one, 2012 edition
Pardon the affected British spelling in the title of this post. I just thought it would add a little extra flavour (there I go again!) to the musical eggnog I'm serving here. It's mostly the same recipe as last year's blog post, but with a few tweaks and extra ingredients. Anyhow, here's my arbitrary and opinionated list of recommended recordings for six great classical works for Christmas. Each is highlighted with links to the CDs as listed at the on-line retailer ArkivMusic.com (which doesn't benefit New England Public Radio -- I find that it has the best selection and is easiest to search through). For faster service, you can also find some of these recordings at such high-quality download sites as Ariama or The Classica l Shop.
Handel: Messiah. With apologies especially to my fellow Americans, I hereby insist that only English choirs will do for Messiah. Whether they feature boys or boyish sopranos, countertenors or real female altos, the English alone have the right tone for Handel's choral writing. Plus, there's no faking the authenticity of their vowels; you either grew up speaking and singing that way, or you didn't. That said, my choice for Messiahs usually boils down to the soloists. Thus my choice, among modern, baroque-conscious versions, for that by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen. Their solo quartet of soprano Carolyn Sampson (e.g., "I know that my redeemer liveth"), mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers ("He was despised"), tenor Mark Padmore ("Ev'ry valley shall be exalted") and bass Christopher Purves ("The trumpet shall sound") can't be beat.
By the way, a lump of coal goes into the stocking of any spoilsport who insists that Messiah doesn't belong in the Christmas season, since it was originally intended for Passiontide. Bah, humbug! In fact, the very same Harry Christophers will be heard Christmas afternoon at 1:00, conducting Boston's venerable Handel and Haydn Society Chorus and Orchestra and a quartet of splendid soloists in a complete concert performance of Messiah. Sorry what I said about non-English choirs, folks; I'm sure you'll sound just fine. Hallelujah!
Bach: Christmas Oratorio. In Bach, on the other hand, I temporarily turn into a choral Anglophobe. Even under their best conductors, the Brits' ultra-bright choral sound clashes, in my opinion, with the innigkeit (warm intimacy) of Bach's sacred music. If that's the quality you also love in Bach, you'd enjoy the recording by Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale. The soloists (soprano Barbara Schlick, countertenor Michael Chance, tenor Howard Crook, bass Peter Kooy), all Herreweghe regulars, are well-attuned to his expressive concept, with Chance's solo on the lullaby "Schlafe, mein Liebster" one of the most moving I've ever heard from a countentenor.
Tchaikovsky's Nutracker. The 2011 recording by Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra may not be the best one to dance to, but it's one of the most enjoyable to listen to. What loving, genial music-making! Of course, I'm referring here not to the Nutcracker Suite, but the complete ballet. Indeed, about 90% of the most beautiful music in Nutcracker comes from the "rest" of the work. You can hear this performance Monday afternoon on WFCR.
Benjamin Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols" and "A Boy Was Born." Composed aboard the ship carrying Britten back to England from the U.S. in 1942, this exquisite setting for treble voices and harp of Old English carol texts can be effectively sung by grown-up females. But to capture its real character and charm, bring on the boychoir. My pick among the several fine recordings features the Westminster Cathedral Choir conducted by David Hill, with harpist Sioned Williams. The slightly astringent tone of the Westminster trebles, compared to some of their English brethren, gives extra definition to Britten's often florid writing. You can also download this performance in high-quality sound directly from the Hyperion label's website. We'll feature this performance this Friday morning during the 9:00 hour, just before Beethoven's Ninth.
As we approach Britten's centennial in 2013, let me also recommend another Christmas work by him, "A Boy Was Born," a theme-and-varations setting of diverse English texts for three choirs a cappella, and an absolutely amazing tour-de-force for its 19-year old composer. Once again, let's go with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, this time with the St. Paul's Cathedral Boy's Choir joining in.
Vaughan Williams's Hodie. As massively conceived a work as you'll ever hear from an 82-year old composer, Hodie ("This Day") combines a narrative of the nativity, sung by a boy choir, with sacred and secular musings on Christ's birth from such poets as Milton, Hardy and the composer's wife Ursula Vaughan Williams sung by the soloists and full choir. (By the way, it was Mrs. VW who would ring up the BBC whenever an announcer referred to her husband as "Ralph", and insisted it be said "Rafe".) Properly festive in its opening and concluding numbers, and more contemplative than celebratory in-between, Hodie stands as a moving valediction from a man who over his many Christmases had seen the world at its best and its worst. The 1965 recording conducted by Sir David Willcocks, and with superb soloists Janet Baker, Richard Lewis and John Shirley-Quirk, remains a first choice, though the more recent rendition conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton offers both better sound and crisper execution
I'll recommend some of the best classical carol collections tomorrow.