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The Spirit of Christmas Past
TRADITIONAL Adeste Fidelesa [4:04]. The Coventry
Carolb (arr. Stainer) [3:13]. O du fröhlichec
[3:06]. A Star was his candled [2:43].
de Noëlf [4:19].
Ave Mariag [4:43].
The oldest Christmas storyh [3:12].
FRANCK Panis angelicusi
Gesu Bambinoj [4:02].
BERLIOZ L:Enfance du Christ
- Le repos de la Saint Famillek [6:56].
Des fremden Kindesheil:ger Christm [3:18].
Exultate, Jubilate - Hallelujahn [3:23].
SCHUBERT Ave Mariao
Mille Cherubini in corop [2:34].
REGER La ninna nanna delle Vergineq
WARREN Christmas Candler
The night before Christmass.
GRUBER Stille Nachtt.
aJohn McCormack, bJohn McHugh, fEnrico
Caruso, iRichard Crooks, jGiovanni Martinelli,
kPaul Planel, mKarl Erb, pBeniamino
Gigli (tenors); bIsobel Baillie, eEmmy Destinn,
gAlma Gluck, cLotte Lehmann, lElisabeth
Schumann, oRosa Ponselle, qClaudia Muzio (sopranos);
dLawrence Tibbett, rJohn Charles Thomas (baritones);
bGladys Ripley, nSigrid Onegin, tErnestine
Schumann-Heink (contraltos); bHarold Williams (bass-baritone);
hCharles Laughton, sBasil Rathbone (speakers);
gEfrem Zimbalist, dStewart Wilde, gEugene
Litsky, lErnest Lush, oRomano Romani, rCarol
Hollister (pianos); bHarold Dawson, tStewart
Wille (organs); cBerlin State Opera Orchestra/Hermann
Weigert; orchestra/fWalter Rogers, iCharles
O’Connell, jJoseph Pasternack, qLorenzo
rec. a31 March bc1944, c4
September 1928, d15 December 1939, e1908,
f23 February g1913, hc1943,
16 Januaryi, 8, 1942, j7 April 1926, kDecember
1932, l26 August mSeptember 1937, n1928,
p25 October q1935, r8 January 1942,
sc1939, t3 November 1926. ADD
NIMBUS PRIMA VOCE NI 7861 [74:35]
What better way to open a Christmas compilation - yes, it’s that time again - than with Adeste fideles?. And who better to sing it than John McCormack, in a 1915 recording. His reading is at once lusty yet heartfelt and reverent. The accompanying group of singers is not credited, alas, and neither is the orchestra or conductor - hardly surprising given the recording date. A shame the orchestra for Hummel’s Halleluja is so approximate of both pitch and ensemble, for here is the Czech soprano Emmy Destinn at her best, her voice radiantly open. Nice to hear “church” bells in the accompaniment, though and perhaps we should not niggle too much about the orchestra. We can hear far more detail than one can decently expect for 1908 provenance.
Caruso can surely be relied on to give Adam’s Cantique de Noël, and he delivers. It was recorded two days before Caruso’s 43rd birthday, and, as the notes point out, there is a baritonal aspect to the sound, although there is no sense of strain whatsoever in the higher reaches. How wonderful, too, to have the honeyed tone of Efrem Zimbalist’s violin partnering Alma Gluck in Gounod’s Ave Maria - he was Gluck’s partner in another sense - her husband; or, indeed, the magnificent Lotte Lehmann, taking a break from the Marschallin and Sieglinde to sing the simple O du fröhliche. And what a contrast she makes to Martinelli’s Gesu Bambino.
The Eisler is a curio, a narration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Charles Laughton (1899-1962) is the speaker, and he manages his task beautifully. Best known for his roles such as Captain Bligh or Henry VIII, he appears here as a guest in the festivities. Nimbus have been clever, too: the track moves seamlessly into the “Celebrity Quartet” of Isobel Baillie, Gladys Ripley, John McHugh and Harold Williams in Stainer’s arrangement of The Coventry Carol. This is a beautiful rendition that here sounds as if it is a choral comment on the preceding narration.
Everyone will have his or her own highlights here. One of the real ones for me is Elisabeth Schumann’s infinitely rapt Schlafendes Jesuskind (Wolf). This is a wonderful transfer of HMV DA 1438 with completely silent background, a piano that has presence and, most importantly, magnificent focus for Schumann’s voice. Rosa Ponselle’s Schubert Ave Maria (with violin obbligato) is a delight; Ponselle’s shading of the melody in the latter half of the song is infinitely tender.
There are some perhaps slightly lesser known names here. Richard Crooks gives a magnificent Panis angelicus, while the excellent Paul Planel gives us one of the more extended numbers - from Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ. Planel’s voice is mellifluous and easy of production - just listen to his final, hushed “Allelujah”.
Curiosity value is here, too, in the form of Loewe’s Des fremden Kindes heil’ger Christ, beautifully given by Karl Erb. There are no credited accompanists, but the halo of strings around the voice is unforgettable. And the Alleluja from Mozart’s Exultate jubilate is heard slower than I for one have heard it, by contralto Sigrid Onegin. It does lose some of its festive nature, especially given the odd good old swoop. If I found Warren’s Christmas Candle rather lacking in inspiration, Lawrence Tibbett’s spoken intro to A Star was his candle leads into a well-characterised account of a curio; this is also previously unpublished, I believe. A similar narration graces The Night before Christmas, this time courtesy of Basil Rathbone.
It falls to the great Ernestine Schumann-Heink to close the disc, with a magnificently rapt reading of Stille Nacht. Nimbus gives us a lovely, heart-warming collection, intelligently chosen and programmed.
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