A Whole New Holiday Playlist for 2017

3 new CDs to break out of a December listening rut

 

Over nearly three decades of reviewing, I feel like I have almost heard it all when it comes to Christmas fare: more Messiahs, more Nutcrackers, and endless re-packagings of the tried-and-true…not to mention the better-off-left-alone.

Ah, but things brightened considerably this year, when one of the newer and more innovative labels around released “Imagine Christmas.” Sono Luminus has a relatively short, but thoroughly impressive track record (pardon the pun), and based on their Christmas release, a wider stable of artists than I realized.

One listen to this all-too-brief disc (my only complaint) and one wonders why it wasn’t called “Re-Imagine Christmas.” Indeed, each of the track listings in the booklet state that the tune is “reimagined” by that particular artist. Never mind; by any name, “Imagine Christmas” is simply the most stimulating Christmas CD that I’ve heard in 20 years (I still have to plug one of my perennial favorites from the late 1990s, NPR’s “Christmas Around the Country II”).

The crew at Sono Luminus gives us a dozen unique takes on the sacred, secular, and just plain off-the-beaten path repertoire. The first category is represented by a lively “Joy to the World” from Cuarteto Latinoamericano and Lydia Lewis, and a favorite carol from a favorite performer among Madison music lovers, “Good King Wenceslas” from the gifted pianistic hands of Stewart Goodyear. The last traditional tune is the closer, an addictive, meditative “Silent Night” from the American Contemporary Music Ensemble.

A neglected classic, Tchaikovsky’s piano solo “December: Christmas,” is brought to fresh life by Bruce Levingston. Other familiar fare is Vince Guarardi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” (yes, from the Peanuts classic toon), played with just enough subtle newness by Caleb Nei, and a hold-your-breath Heifetz arrangement of “White Christmas,” reimagined by Irina Muresanu and Matei Varga. There’s more, but we have to give a shout out to Cory Hills’ hint-of-rap, percussion laced traversal of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

Champs Hill Records has released the newest cd of an older group in a newer configuration, Cantabile—The London Quartet. With two members, soprano Sarah-Ann Cromwell and tenor Christopher O’Gorman, joining in 2015, the 1977 original foursome is down to baritone Michael Steffan (tenor Mark Fleming came on board in 1991). Their new disc, “A Song for Christmas,” is actually a whole bunch of songs, with 26 tracks and nearly 78 minutes of music. Accompanied on just short of half the numbers by Chris Hatt on piano, the quartet delivers impeccably smooth readings of a wide range of fare. Some of the numbers are new, as are many of the arrangements, and again rarities abound even among the older repertoire. “Twelve Days to Christmas” is from the Broadway show She Loves Me—and we get the expected “Twelve Days of Christmas,” with as creative a set of vocal sound effects as one is likely to hear. You can play a great listening game with “A Festival of Carols in Two Minutes,” and better still, check the “answers,” since all the texts, and terrific program notes are included in the booklet.

When I requested “Songs from Israel” from my Naxos distributor contact (all three discs reviewed here can be found at www.naxos.com) I knew I wasn’t getting Christmas music…but I did expect to hear some singing. Perhaps if I had researched the artists first I wouldn’t have been surprised (but what a wonderful surprise it was!). Adon Olam is the name of a group that I wouldn’t hesitate to describe as klezmer (but I hasten to add I’m no expert, and there are a few quieter moments to be heard here). The ARC Music cd is a re-release originally recorded in 1998, with Adon Olam’s leader, Ilya Kuzinets, on violin, Stanislav Pomeranets, clarinet, Dmitri Shechter, keyboards, and Mark Moshayev on drums. There are traditional tunes with simple titles such as “Hassidic Medley” and “Rabbi,” and instantly recognizable favorites such as “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Black Eyes” and “Hava Nagila.” In a season in which we all wish for “shalom,” this disc is a great way to also say “l’chaim!”

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