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A Vaughan Williams Christmas
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea
As a composer particularly attuned to English traditions in general and a music editor of The Oxford Book of Carols in particular, Vaughan Williams was ideally situated to arrange the 11 carols that begin this reverently vibrant collection and the nine that bring it to a close. Four of his own compositions occur mid-disc. Half are undergirded by the organist Hugh Rowlands, and all of them are magnificently sung. Maybe a third of them you know. The two-thirds that you don’t you’ll want to know better.
X is the first letter of “Christ” in Greek. So, no, Clapton isn’t trying to take Christ out of Christmas with this album’s title, not with a gently soulful “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night” placing him in or at least near the presence of the Lord. The emotional centerpieces, though, are the three broken-relationship songs, each of which captures a different shade of the Yuletide blues. Apropos of nothing: the six-minute electronic “Jingle Bells” that serves as a tribute to the late DJ Avicii.
The subtitle says almost everything that you need to know: Early American Holiday Carols Featuring Fiddle, Hammered Dulcimer, Guitar, Recorders, Mandolin, Harp, and More. What it doesn’t say is that Duncan plays these instruments with an elegant virtuosity and simplicity so appropriate to a properly festive observance of Christmas that even those colonists who piously disapproved of the occasion might have found themselves entertaining second thoughts. And don’t let the obscurer titles put you off: “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” and “Blessed Be That Maid Marie” are highlights.
Something’s Happening! A Christmas Album
Swirling strings and other showbiz flourishes transform the carols (especially “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”) and the originals (especially “This World Will Never Be the Same” and “The Grace of the Father”) into themes for an imaginary Christmas TV special. And Winans has never sounded classier. Meanwhile, the decisions of her arranger (and son) Alvin Love III to medley “Feliz Navidad” with “O Holy Night” and to sprinkle “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with Sugar Plum Fairy dust was genius.
Odd Size, aka Ensemble Odd Size, is made up of Elisabeth Holmertz (soprano), Ingrid Andersson (alto, baroque cello), Fredrik Bock (baritone, baroque guitar), and Per Buhre (tenor, baroque violin). They are Swedish baroque musicians devoted, according to their website, to “reviv[ing] a perspective of classical music that is creative and full of improvisation”—in other words, fun. And for their recording debut, the material they’ve chosen for their unique and bold approach is none other than Handel’s Messiah.
Messiah for 4 (Horus) trims Handel’s oratorio to 22 movements and comes in at a svelte 54 minutes, culminating in a “Hallelujah” chorus that, due to Holmertz’s insistence on hamming things up, comes off rather underwhelming. Nearly everything leading up to it, however, justifies the ensemble’s stripped-down experimentalism. They couldn’t get away with what they’re up to, of course, if they weren’t accomplished musicians (and singers) and Messiah a horn of melodic plenty. But they are. And it is.