Classical CD Highlights: December

Classic Arts News   Classical CD Highlights: December
It's December, time once again for a stream of holiday-themed new releases and reissues.

Christmas With Leontyne Price (Decca B0003386)
Joan Sutherland: Joy to the World (Decca B0003387)
Christmas Festival: Renata Tebaldi (Decca B0003388)

Decca digs into its extensive archive of vocal recitals and comes up with Christmas gems by three great sopranos. Christmas With Leontyne Price; Joan Sutherland: Joy to the World; and Christmas Festival: Renata Tebaldi feature carols, traditional holiday favorites, and classical selections sung by these incomparable stars at their peaks. Price's recital was recorded in Vienna in 1961, Sutherland's in London in 1965, and Tebaldi's in 1971.

Best Loved Christmas Carols (EMI 86121)
Britten: A Ceremony of Carols (Marquis Classics 81327)

A specially priced collection from EMI, Best Loved Christmas Carols, contains performances by the King's College Choir, one of the one of the world's most famous choral groups. The two-for-the-price-of-one set features holiday music sung by both the men and the boys of the choir, which is well-known to American audiences thanks to its long-running series of Christmas Eve broadcasts on PBS. Fans of the King's College Choir can also catch the group this month as it makes its first United States tour since 1990, with stops in Dallas; St. Louis; St. Paul; New York; Norfolk, Virginia; and Washington.

The acclaimed Toronto Children's Chorus, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, stars in a collection of reissued performances on the Marquis Classics label. Britten's perennial holiday favorite A Ceremony of Carols and John Rutter's 1990 cycle Dancing Day are the major works on the disc, which also includes music by Bach, Holst, Praetorius, and Healey Willan.

Bach: Choral Works‹Collector's Edition (Deutsche Grammophon B0003451)
Bach: Choral Works‹Complete Collections (RCA Victor 55701)
Bach: Christmas Cantatas (Challenge Records CHR 72230)

Bach and Christmas are virtually synonymous for many music lovers. Bach's magnificent Christmas Oratorio figures prominently in two sets containing mid-priced reissues of major choral works by the Baroque master. In addition to the oratorio, both sets feature the St. Matthew and St. John Passions and the mighty B-Minor Mass. Deutsche Grammophon's nine-CD box offers period performances by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner. RCA's 10-disc set features such big-name vocal soloists as Theo Adam, Arleen Auger, Margaret Marshall, Lucia Popp, Thomas Quasthoff, and Nathalie Stutzmann. Baroque specialist Conductor Ton Koopman continues his survey of the Bach cantatas with a three-disc set of the composer's Christmas Cantatas, with the Amsterdam Baroque Soloists, the Amsterdam Baroque Choir, and various vocal soloists.

Noel Pianissimo (Analekta ANA 29818)
Messiah Remix (Cantaloupe CPE 21020)

Listeners seeking something different might want to check out a pair of offbeat new holiday releases. Duo-pianists Guy Campion and Mario Vachon offer a fun take on Christmas music in Noel Pianissimo, a disc containing 25 Christmas favorites lavishly arranged for two keyboards. Many of the selections in this CD, on the Montreal-based Analekta label, are arranged "in the style of" various composers, among them Bach, Busoni, Liszt, Ravel, and Gershwin.

For many people, it's just not Christmas without the Messiah. Cantaloupe records, the label founded by the groundbreaking contemporary music group Bang on a Can, presents a twist on the holiday chestnut. The label invited 11 contemporary composers, electronica musicians, and experimental hip-hop artists to reinterpret Handel's 1742 masterpiece. The result is Messiah Remix, an album with tracks ranging from acerbic and modern to joyous and tuneful.

Tchaikovsky / Korngold: Violin Concertos (Deustsche Grammophon 0352602)
There's also plenty of interesting non-Christmas music this month. Anne Sophie Mutter, who achieved commercial and critical success in 2002 with her second recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, revisits another staple of the repertory, the Tchaikovsky concerto. The same disc also brings us Mutter's first reading of the lush and Romantic Violin Concerto by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. In the Tchaikovsky, Mutter is accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of her husband, Andr_ Previn. For the Korngold, Mutter is backed by the London Symphony, also with Previn, who won a Grammy with the LSO in 2003 for a CD of Korngold's film music.

Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (Decca B0003433)
Mahler: Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" / Debussy: La Mer (Deutsche Grammophon B0003397)
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 12, Op. 127, Piano Sonata No. 28, Op. 101 (Sony Classical 093043)

Two conductors provide new versions of Mahler symphonies this month. Riccardo Chailly completes his much-lauded Mahler cycle with the brooding and intensely beautiful Symphony No. 9 on a disc recorded immediately after a performance of the work at his last concert as music director of Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Claudio Abbado leads the Lucerne Festival Orchestra‹a band assembled in 2003 with some of Europe's top solo and chamber musicians‹in Mahler's Second Symphony, the "Resurrection." The set also includes a performance of Debussy's La Mer.

Murray Perahia has conducted numerous piano concerto recordings from the keyboard. He steps onto the podium in a new release on Sony Classical to direct the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in a bit of a novelty‹an orchestral arrangement of Beethoven's Op. 127 string quartet. Perahia also serves as pianist in another late Beethoven work on the same disc, the Piano Sonata Op. 101.

Maxwell Davies: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 (Naxos 8.557396)
Glass: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 (Naxos 8.559202)

Contemporary-music fans will find a couple of enterprising releases on Naxos, including two string quartets by Peter Maxwell Davies commissioned by the record label and performed by the Maggini Quartet, a group specializing in British music. Davies' so-called "Naxos" Quartets Nos. 1 and 2, the start of a projected cycle of 10 works, represent a virtually unprecedented partnership between a record composer and a composer. Also available from Naxos is a recording of the Second and Third Symphonies of Philip Glass, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Marin Alsop. This fall, Alsop and her British orchestra drew considerable praise for a disc of works by another leading American composer, John Adams.

Zemlinsky: A Florentine Tragedy (NaÇve NAI V4987)
Finally, opera lovers may want to sample a 20th-century rarity, Alexander von Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy, a chamber opera based on an unfinished Oscar Wilde play. A new release on NaÇve features bass-baritone Albert Dohmen, tenor Viktor Lutsiuk, and mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion. Armin Jordan, a champion of the neglected Viennese composer, directs the Orchestre Philarmonique de Radio France.

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