ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Christmas with Chanticleer
PERFORMER: Dawn Upshaw (soprano); Chanticleer/Joseph Jennings
CATALOGUE NO: 8573-85555-2
Thank heavens, say I, that there are rare exceptions to the unspoken rule that a good Christmas disc should contain only the predictable, the saccharine, the sentimental. One look at the supporting cast list of Sumi Jo’s unpromisingly entitled The Christmas Album tells us that this might be an instance. First, the Cologne Vocal Ensemble and Baroque ensemble Cappella Coloniensis under Michael Schneider, with Bach (Gottfried) on fortepiano. Then the Appalachian folksong ‘I wonder as I wander’, and the disc moves swiftly into a different world with a chorale from the Christmas Oratorio of Bach (JS), Alessandro Scarlatti’s Cantata pastorale per la nascita di Nostro Signore, another Christmas cantata by one Christoph Bernhard, a movement from an early Mozart symphony, Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto Il riposo – per il Santissimo Natale (with the excellent Hiro Kurosaki), Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate. Oh dear, though, what’s this? Gruber’s ‘Stille Nacht’. Twice. Never mind. One performance is of the original version, and its parallel thirds swing lightly and are less sugary than most versions. The second, an arrangement for fortepiano and violin, is just about forgivable, if dangerously slow.
A BIS release, Christmas in Sweden, profiles several excellent choirs and includes welcome leavenings of the unknown, including rousing works by Gunnar Wennerberg (Psalm 24) and Georg Vogler (‘Hosianna’). There are also Bach organ pieces, quite a few nice folk tunes, a dash of Sibelius and Nielsen. But one doesn’t get away entirely without sentimentality – ‘Santa Lucia’ sung by a children’s choir in Swedish, for instance. And, wouldn’t you know it, hidden at track 15 (of 31), ‘Stille Nacht’ as soupily done as any reading, with humming male voice choir backing the soprano Christina Högman. Yuck to that.
The other two are more predictable. The American male vocal ensemble Chanticleer’s offering contains clever, beautifully sung arrangements of the familiar and less familiar, with Dawn Upshaw taking the guest star’s role in several works. Including ‘Stille Nacht’. And lastly Trinity College, Cambridge’s offering under Richard Marlow. It’s a fine choir, but it sings for the most part the usual Oxbridge collegiate nine lessons and carols stuff in fancy arrangements. No ‘Stille Nacht’, though. Stephen Pettitt