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Classical music at Christmastime goes beyond Handel's 'Messiah'

Classical music for the holidays pretty much begins and ends with Handel's Messiah in my book. I must have a half-dozen CDs of it (a favorite is the vintage RCA recording conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham with Jon Vickers as one of the soloists). I'm singing selections from the great oratorio this year in a choir and never fail to be amazed by Handel's genius. All those madly ingenious word settings that seemed impossible at the beginning of rehearsals a few months ago now trip off the tongue with ease (sort of).

And at this time of year, let us not forget another masterpiece, Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride; it wouldn't be the holidays without hearing it everywhere. There are no new Messiah recordings that I know of, but there's a fun Sleigh Ride among recent releases that celebrate the season.

Imani Winds
This Christmas


This is the class act of the classical holiday CDs. It's refreshing to hear familiar carols and songs smartly arranged for wind quintet, along with bass, piano and percussion, from Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella to Let It Snow to the Donny Hathaway title song. Imani (which means "faith'' in Swahili) performs delightful renditions of Sleigh Ride and The Christmas Song.

Download this: Sleigh Ride

Grade: A

Sarah Brightman
A Winter Symphony (Manhattan)

The heavy hand of Brightman's German producer Frank Peterson is on display in the bombastic opening track, ABBA's Arrival, but for the most part, the soprano is in her English choir girl mode: Silent Night, In the Bleak Midwinter, Child in a Manger. Brightman is a clever programmer, covering I Believe in Father Christmas, written to protest the commercialization of Christmas by Greg Lake (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer), and the bubblegum hit I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday. In the obligatory duet, Brightman and Spanish countertenor Fernando Lima sing Ave Maria, and then she reprises it solo in the Bach/Gounod version. Nothing succeeds like excess.

Download this: I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

Grade: B

John Rutter
A Christmas Festival (Collegium)

The English choral composer and conductor leads a concert of traditional fare, with the Cambridge Singers, Farnham Youth Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. His arrangement of Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day and Ave Maria have an irresistible glamorous pop sheen. The disc ends with mezzo-soprano Melanie Marshall in a touching Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Download this: Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day

Grade: A

Yo-Yo Ma and Friends
Songs of Joy & Peace
(Sony Classical)

Ma throws a crossover holiday party with Diana Krall, Dave Brubeck, Joshua Redman, Edgar Meyer, Paquito D'Rivera and more. There's seasonal music here — Alison Krauss in The Wexford Carol, Natalie MacMaster in A Christmas Jig — but some numbers stray from the theme. James Taylor waltzes through the Beatles' Here Comes the Sun. Renee Fleming's torchy Touch the Hand of Love is a highlight, as is the Silk Road Ensemble in Osvaldo Golijov's Kuai Le ("joy'' in Chinese). The musical thread running through it all is Ma's expressive cello.

Download this: My Favorite Things (Chris Botti)

Grade: B

Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Rejoice and Be Merry! (Mormon Tabernacle Choir)

If it's Christmas, there must be a Mormon Tabernacle Choir CD from the group's annual concerts at Temple Square. This time around, the featured artists are the King's Singers, who get right down to business on the sensational opening track, Sussex Carol. You can count on the Mormons to shine in gleaming arrangements of traditional material such as Ding Dong! Merrily on High, O Holy Night and The Twelve Days of Christmas. And the King's Singers turn in a wonderful treatment of Jingle Bells that sounds like a Mozart motet.

Download this: Jingle Bells

Grade: A
Gian Carlo Menotti
Amahl and the Night Visitors

Menotti's one-act opera was a Christmas Eve staple on TV in the 1950s. It's still a lovely way to get into the spirit of the season. Based on the Hieronymus Bosch painting The Adoration of the Magi, the story is about a disabled boy who is miraculously healed when he offers his crutch to the Three Wise Men as a gift for the Christ child. This CD (which does not include the libretto) features the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Alastair Willis, who is leading the Florida Orchestra's coffee concerts this season. Two of the Wise Men are sung by baritone Todd Thomas and bass-baritone Kevin Short, both of whom have performed with Sarasota Opera.

Download this: Have You Seen
a Child

Grade: A

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

Classical music at Christmastime goes beyond Handel's 'Messiah' 12/10/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 4:51pm]
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