COMPOSERS: G Gabrieli & de Rore
LABELS: DG Archiv
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: A Venetian Christmas
PERFORMER: Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh
CATALOGUE NO: 471 333-2
It would be churlish of a record company with a name like Winter & Winter not to put out a Christmas disc. But Munich-based Winter & Winter is not churlish and has issued an excellent recording entitled SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY CHRISTMAS EVE. It does pretty much what it says on the box, presenting Christmas tunes by Buxtehude and Biber plus a host of other composers I wish I knew more about: Schmelzer, Fux, Tunder, Reichwein, Aufschnaiter et al. Bell’Arte Salzburg is a lively, intelligent band, joined on most tracks by Susanne Rydén, a soprano with a crystal-pure voice whose light vibrato is extremely attractive. The product is a ‘24 bit recording with no processing’, the audio equivalent of a free-range turkey, and sounds as clean and healthy as it ought to.
Over in Detmold, another company concerned about audio welfare is MDG, whose booklet announces ‘Das Klangkonzept’ – the concept again being to reject sound manipulation and all its works. MDG’s CHRISTMAS MUSIC features works by brothers Joseph and Michael Haydn, and ‘Stille Nacht’ and ‘Welch ein Jubelton’ by Franz Gruber. Gruber, one suspects, is here chiefly to justify the Christmas tag, and M Haydn to provide some slightly earnest and predictable music that shows his brother in a good light. Fortunately there is enough by J Haydn – including some little-known pastorellas that are well worth discovering – to make the disc recommendable. I’m not sure how Christmassy it all is: Haydn’s Organ Concerto in C, also included, was apparently written to mark the sad event of his first love’s entrance into a nunnery. Perhaps Haydn was anticipating Christmas every day from then on: certainly the tripping lightness of the music leads one to question just how much he cared for the woman. The Hassler Consort performs energetically, joined in the pastorellas by the fine, articulate soprano, Gerlinde Sämann.
The Gabrieli Consort and Players under Paul McCreesh will once again regrettably not be home for Christmas. A couple of years ago their festive contribution was a re-creation of Christmas around 1664 in the Dresden court; this year they present a Christmas service as it might have taken place in the basilica of St Mark in VENICE around 1600. One cannot know just how successful they are, but the whole thing reeks of authenticity. Bells chime; monkish voices chant; sackbuts parp; and between whiles the musicians give impeccable performances of movements from an a cappella Mass by Cipriano de Rore and various pieces by Gabrieli.
Tradition of a different sort can be found on Music for Christmas by JOHN RUTTER. This is the authentically perfect Christmas that nobody I know has ever had. The booklet compares Rutter with Dickens, and certainly Dickens’s occasional sentimental, cloying vein is detectable in Rutter’s work. His tunes tend to be either jingly, flutey, jaunty numbers or pieces of devout, holy earwash, all done in an idiom that is rather too traditional to be stimulating. Just as it is apparently possible to kill with too much kindness (although I have never risked putting it to the test), too much Rutter can make one queasy. Those prone to Rutter fatigue should try instead Hyperion’s anthology CHRISTMAS THROUGH THE AGES, which has just one Rutter tune and a lot of other seasonal pieces from Praetorius to Poulenc performed by Hyperion’s stable of artists.
Of CHRISTMAS MUSIC FROM MEDIEVAL HUNGARY, performed by Anonymous 4, the American Record Guide opined ‘Prepare to be transported to a heavenly realm’. The health warning is timely if a little excessive. Prepare instead to be transported to a slumbrous realm. Honey-toned, emollient, soothing, beguiling – Anonymous 4 is all these things: and a cure for all known forms of insomnia. It takes a lot to calm a host of raving Magyar warriors, but Anonymous 4 might have them curled up and snoring in seconds.
The New Century Saxophone Quartet is a breath of fresh air. ‘It’s just not in our nature to do any project in a “standard” sort of way,’ claims an introductory note. Thankfully this means more than just wearing sunglasses indoors – which the group likes to do in photographs. Authenticity is a low priority. Indeed, the disc A NEW CENTURY CHRISTMAS is unique among this crop for not being rooted in the music of the past or attempting to evoke a mythical golden age of happier, more authentic Christmases. It presents amusing and ingenious arrangements of Christmas tunes by a diversity of living composers, and the results are fun and original. One of the arrangers, Lennie Pickett, explains: ‘My least favorite holiday is X-mas. After that comes Thanksgiving and then Easter.’ Pickett has the right idea. By refusing to be gulled by the Christmas hype, the quartet has created something fresh and irreverent – and it will probably still sound good long after the turkey has become soup.