Two new releases from Harmonia Mundi celebrate the sacred and secular sides of the Christmas season.
The Nutcracker Suites (Harmonie Ensemble/New York and Steve Richman); Veni Emanuel (Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Ross and Haigh) (Harmonia Mundi)
By Jonathan Blumhofer
It may only be October now, but the holiday season is just around the corner. Harmonia Mundi is doing its best to remind us of that fact with two new releases that celebrate the sacred and secular sides of the Christmas season.
First up is a new recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite paired with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s arrangement of that Suite from 1960. It can be telling to pair these two pieces, so stylistically different from one another but each satisfying in their own ways. Unfortunately, on this album Tchaikovsky’s original gets a bewildering, uneven performance. In general, the winds and brass are strong, but the string playing is sluggish and that kills everything: it plods throughout, lacks any spark or bounce, and robs the music of its charm (and this is pretty charming music when played right). Nobody’s helped by conductor Steve Richman’s cautious tempos, especially in the Overture and “Trepak,” but tempo isn’t the whole problem. Rather, at issue seems to be an interpretive approach from one section of the orchestra that falls flat and lacks life.
Which is odd, because, when the strings aren’t distracting from them, the winds, brass, and percussion are crisp, colorful, and vibrant – everything they should be. They lead the way in delightfully cheeky readings of the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and “Chinese Dance,” and deliver a restrained but flowing “Waltz of the Flowers” (which is only once marred by an overzealous trombone player). Still, with so many better renditions of this music already out there, there’s really little to recommend this half of the album.
The second half is another story. In their Nutcracker Suite, Ellington and Strayhorn created an arrangement that marries class, musical integrity, and sheer verve into a jumping, swinging whole. Where Harmonie Ensemble’s account of Tchaikovsky’s original Suite was stiff and dull, the jazz arrangement (which, perhaps not coincidentally, doesn’t call for a string section) gets a performance that jumps, swings, and swoons all the way to the bank. Harmonie Ensemble is joined by the brilliant, gritty saxophonist Lew Tabackin; trumpeter Lew Soloff; clarinetist Bill Easley; drummer Victor Lewis; and pianist George Cables, all of whom help bridge the classical/jazz divide with ease. No one’s yet topped Ellington’s own recording of this suite, but Harmonie Ensemble and friends make for a nice alternative if you want to hear a fresh take from the original artists.
The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge’s new recording, Veni Emanuel: Music for Advent, also presents mostly familiar Christmas music, here all of the sacred variety. Built around the eight “O” antiphons sung before the Magnificat at Vespers in the days leading up to Christmas, the album juxtaposes a wide range of (mostly English) choral anthems, including a marvelous pair by Herbert Howells (“The Fear of the Lord” and the “Magnificat” from the Gloucester Service). Among the familiar fare, there’s a helping of Michael Praetorius (“Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” in an arrangement by Jan Sandström), Bach (“Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern?”), Mendelssohn (“Say, where is he born” from Christus), and Rachmaninoff (the “Bogoroditse Dyevo” from the All-Night Vespers), as well as pieces by William Byrd, Peter Warlock, and John Sheppard.
Appropriately, there’s also a strong representation of recent choral music here, all by English composers. The highlight among these is Roderick Williams’ “O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,” a haunting depiction of spatial separation and spiritual longing. Further scores by Graham Ross (who is also the very able conductor of the Choir), John Tavener, and John Rutter provide a nice balance to the proceedings.
To say that the performances here are excellent is to state the obvious: the Choir of Clare College is one of at least several Cambridge-based groups (the Choir of King’s College being another) that really own this repertoire, and they’re only playing to their strengths here. One small complaint is that there’s a certain sameness of character in much of the music, which can grow tiring in one sitting (the disc clocks in at nearly seventy-seven minutes). Still, if you’re looking for sacred, choral Christmas music, you generally know what you’re going to get and there are no jarring surprises in this substantial, well-sung album.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.