Dr. Seuss got it wrong; what matters is not the Grinch who stole Christmas but the way Christmas keeps accumulating other things: holly and mistletoe, yule logs and evergreens, red-nosed reindeer, snowmen, nutcrackers, and people riding in sleighs with long, colorful scarfs trailing behind them.
These things have nothing to do with a person who was born in Israel (most likely not on Dec. 25) two millennia ago, give or take the odd decade. The religious holiday has blended into the winter festival, a celebration with pagan roots stretching back beyond history, a feast devised to brighten the coldest, darkest time of year.
After so many centuries, the symbolism, the ceremonies and the music of Christmas are still growing. This celebration has certainly inspired more music than any other event in human history (even more than the Napoleonic Wars, a prime competitor).
It continues to generate new compositions, themes and associations. Two living composers, John Harbison and John Rutter, have added notably to this year's crop of recorded Christmas music in the classical tradition. And with the stimulus of digital recording, some very old Christmas music, ranging in date from the Middle Ages through the baroque era to the early 20th century, has been brought back to life in new recordings and polished to a fresh brightness.
At least two well-established winter-related classics have been stolen this year to fill out Christmas albums, as Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" has been doing for years. One is Pachelbel's ever-popular Canon in D, which glows with a sense of peace on earth but otherwise has no connection with the holiday. The other is the "Winter" concerto from Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," which fits in well enough thanks to the cozy image in its slow movement: someone sitting in a comfortable chair in front of a fireplace watching the cold rain fall outside.
Some of the oldest Christmas music on records -- and some of the best-performed -- can be heard on "Noel, Noel! French Christmas Music 1200-1600" (Erato 2292-45420-2, with texts and translations), performed by the Boston Camerata under the direction of Joel Cohen. This is a mixed bundle, celebrating both the religious and the secular dimensions of the feast (even the Feast of Fools, a remnant of pagan Rome), and all its ingredients are of high quality.
The Smithsonian Chamber Players use period instruments in "Sweet Was the Song" (Smithsonian Collection ND 040, with texts and translations) for material dating mostly from the Renaissance and baroque eras. Some of the material is familiar and all of it should be. The superb singing of baritone Max van Egmond in several languages and the ensemble's idiomatic playing make this disc very special.
The limpid charm of Heinrich Schutz's "Die Weinachts-Historie" ("The Christmas Story") is beautifully conveyed by the Concerto Vocale ensemble, Rene Jacobs conducting, on a disc (Harmonia Mundi 901310, with texts and translations) that also contains five of his little cantatas (which he called "Little Spiritual Concerts") on Christmas motifs. This music, which looks forward toward Bach and backward toward Monteverdi, has a power and sweetness uniquely its own.
Gabriel Pierne (1863-1937) reflects the innocence of childhood and the simplicity of the Middle Ages in his 1907 cantata "Les Enfants a` Bethlehem" ("The Children at Bethlehem"), which centers on the fear and wonder felt by the shepherds (including children) at the first Christmas. Besides shepherds, the Virgin Mary and a children's chorus, there is music for the star of Bethlehem and (the only two male singers in the cast) the ass (tenor) and ox (baritone). The recording (Erato 2292-45008-2, with libretto) is sung in French, making it a specialized interest, but many listeners will find it a real discovery.
The same is true of two Italian Christmas Cantatas by Alessandro Stradella (1639-1682) as performed by vocal soloists and the La Stagione early instrument ensemble, Michael Schneider conducting (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 7718902-RC, with libretto). Stradella was one of the most inventive composers of the early baroque era, and his work is worth noting for its dramatic power and musical structures (rooted both in opera and in the concerto grosso form) as well as its seasonal interest.
John Harbison, one of the most consistently enjoyable American composers working today, took 10 verses from the Gospel of St. Matthew as his text for "The Flight Into Egypt," a cantata that demonstrates convincingly that a (fairly conservative) modern style can work well for such traditional material. The same disc (New World 80395-2) contains his song cycle "The Natural World" and his Concerto for Double Brass Choir and Orchestra, imaginative music in good performances. Carols
Several arrangements by John Rutter, an English composer who has developed a large following in this country, are featured (with other traditional material) on recordings made and distributed by two Washington choruses: "Christmas With the Choral Arts Society of Washington" and "Sing We the Birth: The Mormon Choir of Washington, D.C." Besides his harmonizations and instrumental arrangements for "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day" and "The Holly and the Ivy," both the Choral Arts disc and the Mormon cassette include the exquisite "Candlelight Carol" for which Rutter wrote words and music. The Mormon tape also has his "Angels' Carol" and "The Very Best Time of Year," as well as an item of local interest, "The Shepherds and the Kings" by Ruth and Paul Hume.
The Mormon performance is good; the Choral Arts is superlative, not only in the excellent choral work but in the solos by soprano Rosa Lamoreaux. The 25 pieces are imaginatively selected, ranging from Czech and Ukrainian carols to the opening chorus of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, and including old favorites.
The Christmas spiritual is a special category of carol whose fervor, imagination and vitality have enriched the repertoire of nearly every choir that sings in English. A particularly attractive collection, well sung in sometimes piquant harmonizations, is "Black Christmas" (ESS.A.Y CD1011).
The best-sung Christmas record I have heard this year is "Our Heart's Joy" (Chanticleer CR-8803), sung and distributed by the Chanticleer chamber chorus (650 Fifth St., Suite 311, San Francisco, Calif. 94107). The repertoire ranges from the Renaissance to the present and also includes a medley of seven spirituals, which are not duplicated in the group's outstanding spirituals collection, "Where the Sun Will Never Go Down" (CR-8802).
Among recent recordings by church choirs, the best I have heard is "Candlelight Carols," sung by the choir of Trinity Church, Boston (London 430-456-2). Its 19 selections include five composed or arranged by Rutter. The "Candlelight Carol," which may be the 1980s' answer to "Silent Night," is on this disc too.
"Les Plus Beaux Noels" ("The Most Beautiful Carols") is the ambitious but not terribly overstated title of a very popular recording (Erato 2292-45159-2 with texts and French translations), remastered from an analog original and featuring trumpeter Maurice Andre with an orchestra and Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Laurent. The playing time on this disc is very short for a CD (just under 36 minutes), but there are 16 selections, Andre plays gloriously and the chorus is idiomatic in all its languages. You would swear it was an American chorus, with all the musical vices pertaining thereto, when it sings "I'm dreamin' of a white Chris-muss." Novelties
A historically fascinating recording of Handel's "Messiah," dating from 1927 and conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham (Pearl GEMM CDS 9456, two CDs), shows a key stage in the performance history of this work: the beginning of a return from the massive and technically sloppy choruses of the Victorian era to the smaller, better-trained choruses of today. The chorus and orchestra in this set are both excellently prepared; the soloists were the best of that era, and except for the quavery tenor Hubert Eisdell they still make a good impression in the somewhat changed climate of today. The sound is excellent, considering its age, and though the performance inspires reservations one can see why it set the standard in this music for 20 years.
The Canadian Brass, with the Elmer Iseler Singers, came up with some interesting ideas for "The Christmas Album" (Philips 426 835-2), beginning with "A Visit From St. Nicholas" as set to music by Ward Swingle with thematically apt quotes from favorite Christmas tunes in the instrumental accompaniment. "The 12 Days of Christmas" features a list (with samples) not of poultry, etc., but of music -- brass music, naturally -- played on the 12 days. There is also a graceful brass arrangement of the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," "Jingle Bells" with a galumphing tuba and lots of favorite tunes well played.
The London Brass, a somewhat larger group, has very full-bodied tone and no chorus on "Christmas With the London Brass" (Teldec 2292-46443-2). Its arrangements are generally straightforward, designed to show the players' smooth technique and burnished tone and to give the beloved old melodies with clarity and power. But in one selection they show that they can be as playful and brilliant as the Canadians: Vivaldi's "Winter" Concerto, a tough piece for strings and a mind-boggling tour de force for brass players.
On "Noels pour Orgue" (Erato 2292-45455-2), Marie-Claire Alain gives imaginative performances of old French carols as arranged and adapted by some of the great French organists of the 17th and 18th centuries. This is a significant segment of the French organ repertoire, and you are not likely to hear it better played.
The most lavish Christmas pops album of the year is "Christmas With the Pops" (Telarc CD-80266), featuring the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Erich Kunzel conducting, adult and children's choruses, handbell players and solos by Rosemary Clooney, Sherrill Milnes and Doc Severinsen. Slightly overwhelming and (of course) very vividly recorded.
The most tasteful Christmas record of the year, and a thoroughly enjoyable one that stands up well to repetitions, is "Christmas Remembered" (North Star NS0024). It features excellent chamber music arrangements of 16 Christmas numbers -- piano trio versions of "Silent Night" and "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," for example, and "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" for flute and guitar. Non-seasonal classics such as Pachelbel's Canon and Schumann's"Traeumerei" are woven into the texture and do not seem out of place.
Finally, the most bizarre Christmas record on the market this year is the soundtrack of the movie "Home Alone" (CBS SK46595), which includes a good selection of carols performed in various styles (including one composed by John Williams) along with the kind of atmospheric background music you expect to hear in soundtracks. The scary parts are probably calculated to make you appreciate the Christmas parts more.