Christmas Music for Varied Sensibilities

AT CHRISTMAS play and make good cheer, for Christmas comes but once a year,” wrote the 16th-century poet Thomas Tusser.

He was right about the calendar, and it’s a good thing. If Christmas came more often, there would never be an end to the flood of recordings geared to the holiday.

This year’s inundation has ended. But it started as far back as September, so persons in the market for yuletide music have from which to choose.

Here’s a brief sampling of what’s available. “PEACE TO ALL OF YOU” Pieces of 8 (Drive All Night Productions)

This is a local product, recorded at the Jacob’s Ladder studio and featuring the virtuosic a cappella vocal octet that sprouted a year or two ago at the almost erstwhile St.

Louis Conservatory of Music.

The tight and sophisticated arrangements are by the group’s director, Charles Mead. So are two of the compositions: an “Iroquois Prayer

for World Peace” and, unusual for a Christmas album, a “Prayer for Our

Children” based on the traditional Jewish song “Sim Shalom.” The other material is more or less familiar, but the treatments tend toward the unorthodox.

“I’ll I do Be Home for Christmas up in a cool doo-wop style, for example, “O Holy Night” has a gospel feel, and “Auld Lang Syne” is spiced with Cajun rhythms.

GEORGE BALANCHINE’S “THE NUTCRACKER” Music from the original soundtrack (Elektra Nonesuch) GEORGE BALANCHINE’S

“THE NUTCRACKER” Kevin Kline, narrator (Elektra Nonesuch)

The ballet called “The Nutcracker” is credited to its composer, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. But it’s the choreography by George Balanchine

that dominates the current movie, and so it’s Balanchine’s name that gets the biggest display on these two similarly titled albums.

The albums’ musical content is similar, too; in fact, the differences have to do only with packaging.

On both discs the music is played by the New York


City Ballet under the direction of David Zinman. On the “soundtrack” album (featuring a painting of a nutcracker on the booklet cover),

the ballet score is offered truncated but otherwise unadulterated; on the other disc

(illustrated with a still from the film), a shorter version of the same performance is overlay and filled out with a narration by actor Kevin Kline.

I draw Kline’s text from the book by Joel Meyerowitz; for kids who want

to relive the experience of a theatrical “Nutcracker” again and again, the narrated version seems made to order.

“XXFIRST CENTURY MESSIAH” Kathy Geisler, synthesist (Well-Tempered Recordings)

People elsewhere in the world regard it, but in the United States “Messiah” counts as Christmas music. Live performances of the oratorio abound

at this time of a year, and so do recordings.

As she did with the music of Bach on earlier albums, Geisler brings a tasteful and respectful attitude to these excerpts from Handel’s lofty score.

For all the modernity of her electronic instruments, her interpretations hold faithfully to tradition. The textless “chorus” consists of layer upon

layer of the “ooh” and “aah” sounds standard to today’s sample-playback devices, but the strangest thing about the album, really, is the orthography

of the title. “MESSIAH” (EXCERPTS) Boston Baroque; Martin Pearlman, conductor (Telarc)

Telarc’s Christmas present features by and large the same selections

that are heard on Geisler’s disc, but they are performed by human beings instead of computer-driven synthesizers.

Boston Baroque is a reputable “early music” organization, and the liner notes suggest that this performance is in various ways “authentic”;

particular attention is paid, Pearlman writes, to the “dramatic”

style of the choral singing. Like Geisler’s treatment, though, it sounds

on the whole quite conventional. RUTLAND BOUGHTON: “BETHLEHEM” The Holst Singers, City of London Sinfonia (Hyperion)

While the composer’s name may be unfamiliar, his style certainly is not; Boughton lived from 1878 to 1960, and as a musician he followed

the same harmonically lush, melodically simple, antique-flavored trail

blazed by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Peter Warlock and many other English nationalists. …

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