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Christmas from a Golden Age
George Frideric HANDEL

Messiah: Comfort ye, my people

Recorded: 26 March 1940
Messiah: Ev'ry valley shall be exalted

Aksel Schiotz, tenor
Studio Orchestra/Mogens Woldike
Recorded: 26 March 1940
Messiah: He shall feed his flock

Margarete Matzenauer, contralto; Studio Orchestra/Rosario Bourdon
Recorded: 1 December 1925
Anonymous

Adeste fideles

John McCormack; Trinity Choir; Studio Orchestra
Recorded: 1 October 1926
Easthope MARTIN

The Holy Child

John McCormack; Studio Orchestra
Recorded: 17 December 1926
Johann Sebastian BACH / Charles GOUNOD Ave Maria
Rosa Ponselle; Studio Orchestra
Recorded: 19 May 1926
Jean LUCE O salutaris
Rosa Ponselle; Studio Orchestra
Recorded: 11 May 1933
Jean LUCE / Max REGER Ninna-Nanna della Vergine, Op. 76, No. 52, The Virgin's lullaby
Claudia Muzio, soprano
Studio Orchestra/Lorenzo Molajoli
Recorded: 11 May 1933
Pietro YON Gesu Bambino
Giovanni Martinelli, tenor
Ladies' Chorus; Studio Orchestra
Recorded: 7 April 1926
Traditional

Der Tannenbaum

Hulda Lashanska, soprano; Paul Reimers, tenor; Studio Orchestra
Recorded: 5 May 1927
Engelbert HUMPERDINCK Weihnachten
Ernestine Schumann-Heink, contralto
Recorded: 15 September 1927
Franz GRUBER Stille Nacht
Ernestine Schumann-Heink, contralto; Stewart Wille, piano
Recorded: 3 November 1926
Stephen ADAMS The Star of Bethlehem
Richard Crooks, tenor; Studio Orchestra
Recorded: 24 September 1945
Traditional

Coventry Carol

Elisabeth Schumann, soprano; Studio Orchestra
Recorded: 22 October 1938
Go Tell it on the Mountain

Dorothy Maynor, soprano; Studio Chorus
Recorded: 14 November 1941
Little Child of Mary

John McCormack; Edwin Schneider, piano
Recorded: 27 June 1935
I wonder as I wander

Gladys Swarthout
RCA Victor Orchestra/Milton Katims
Recorded: 20 July 1950
Pablo CASALS El Cant des Ocells
Victoria de los Angeles, soprano; Graciano Tarrago, guitar; Renata Tarrago, guitar
Recorded: 22 September 1950
Elinor Remick WARREN Christmas Candle
Carroll Hollister, piano; John Charles Thomas, baritone
Recorded: 8 January 1942
Theresa DEL RIEGO A star was his candle
Lawrence Tibbett; Stewart Wille, piano
Recorded: 15 December 1939
Lewis REDNER O little town of Bethlehem
Richard Crooks, tenor; Clarence Dickinson, organ
Adolphe ADAM
Cantique de Noel
Georges Thill, tenor
Studio Chorus; Studio Orchestra/Armand Bernard
Recorded: 26 September 1932
Irving BERLIN White Christmas
Richard Tauber, tenor
Studio Chorus; Studio Orchestra/Henry Geehl
Recorded: 8 November 1944
Original recordings 1925-1950. ADD
Seth B. Winner Studios Inc., Restoration Engineer
NAXOS 8.110296 [77.28]

Naxos show their usual acumen by catering for different niches of the Christmas music market. The Tonus Peregrinus disc rings some stunning and disorientating changes on the traditional favourites and sounds. This disc sets out to grasp the nostalgia of Christmas bounded by the usual 50 year copyright period.

Schiotz (comprehensively documented by Danacord) with his regular fast vibrato picks up the solid ‘Christmas pudding’ school of Messiahs. I wonder if three tracks of Messiah one after the other are too much of a good thing. McCormack in Adeste fideles and The Holy Child is typically nasal and trounces the competition for clarity and word adumbration. Is there however much joy in this?. The alto-inclined tones of Ponselle's 1926 Ave Maria arrive on the scene only after a lengthy prelude in which the solo violin carries the line. Muzio's Ninna-Nanna track, surprisingly by Max Reger, has a pleasing and folksy cradle-rocking rhythm. Martinelli is right there at the front with a voice vibrant as the noon-day sun. From him there is no hiding place in Gesu Bambino. Der Tannenbaum is from a 1927 vintage 78 by Hulda Lashanska and lucid-toned tenor Paul Reimers. Schumann-Heink's Stille Nacht was taken down in 1926. Her trembling soprano is very intimately balanced and with a balalaika effect orchestra - surely that is a harmonium not, as the label claims, an orchestra. Dorothy Maynor's Go Tell It On The Mountain is a welcome blast of oxygen though just a bit metronomic. The McCormack Little Child of Mary strong for the imaginative coupling and superbly insightful playing of Edwin Schneider. In I wonder as I wander Swarthout has an ineffably secure hold on the line - a standout track as is the McCormack one. Victoria De Los Angeles sings Casals’ Song Of The Birds to a rather rigid accompaniment of guitars from the Tarrago brothers. The 1942 Tibbett in A Star Was His Candle is staggeringly immediate and secure by comparison with the De Los Angeles track. Crooks is terribly tight and unrelieved in tone. Could he muster no softness? Compare this with the generosity and smiling spirit in Georges Thill's Cantique De Noel by Adam. Thill is not afraid to give of his personality - different countries different mores, no doubt. We end with Henry Geehl conducting Tauber in a clip-clop, reindeer bell arrangement of Berlin's White Christmas. Tauber’s English indulges a Viennese coffee-flavoured accent. There is a chorus and an organ and an orchestra as well. Tauber's high note on White is ecstatically luminous - a steady starlit glow.

Nostalgia and glutinous sentimentality aplenty. Many of the tracks are caught in the jet of previous decades' sentiment. Outstanding tracks are the Tauber White Christmas, Schumann-Heink's Silent Night, Swarthout's lovely I Wonder As I Wander, and the Reger Ninna-Nanna.

Rob Barnett

Bill Kenny has also listened to this disc

In his excellent and enthusiastic sleeve note to this disc, Jeremy Nicholas asks the question, ‘Do these ancient discs bear scrutiny when today you can hear any number of outstanding singers rendering Christmas selections in state-of-the-art sound?’ His answer is a resounding affirmation: ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘a hundred times yes,’ because the music offered has such a ‘rich variety.’

I’m not sure that everyone will agree, and for two reasons. First, the rich variety runs from Messiah to White Christmas by way of Christmas parlour songs, with some spirituals and folk tunes thrown in. Some of the music is interesting and memorable and (fairly unarguably I think) some of it is not. A second factor affecting appreciation, is that singers of equal stature in the opera house or concert hall vary enormously in their capacities to cope with more popular repertoire. ‘Cross-over’ is obviously not a new problem; some artists sing anything wonderfully and others simply don’t.

Allowing for acknowledged yet unavoidable biases on my part, some examples of what I enjoyed here are Reger’s, The Virgin’s Lullaby sung beautifully by Claudia Muzio, a soprano much admired by Eva Turner apparently, Pietro Yon’s Gesù Bambino, belted out at full tilt by Giovanni Martinelli, Lawrence Tibbett’s seriously manly version of Theresa del Riego’s A star was his candle and Adolphe Adam’s Cantique de Noël thrillingly performed by Georges Thill. Though the music varies in quality, these singers tackle it all with easy artistry and make listening entirely pleasurable.


There are other tracks of similar standing. Gladys Swarthout is touchingly affecting in ‘I wonder as I wander,’ as is Victoria de los Angeles with ‘The Song of the Birds,’ and Dorothy Maynor’s delivery of ‘Go tell it on the Mountain’ accompanied by her a capella male choir, dated though its style might be, certainly has an obvious warmth and sincerity to my ear. Aksel Schiøtz and Margarete Matzenauer of course, give their Messiah excerpts with great style.

Without attempting a track by track comparison, I was a good deal less happy with the second American baritone, John Charles Thomas, with the tenor Richard Crooks, with Tauber and with Marcel Journet, the only bass on the disc, who recorded his track near the end of his life but with obvious evidence of former glories. I freely admit however that this judgment has as much to do with the music presented as with the performances. Perhaps not entirely however, although I’ve never liked ‘White Christmas’ whoever sings it.

The one thing that is incontestable about this disc is the superb quality of the digital restorations by the Seth B. Winner Sound Studios. The lack of extraneous noise and steadiness of pitch is remarkable. More importantly though, the disc gives a very good sense of what all of these undoubtedly gifted performers must have sounded like in life.

I am sure that some listeners will share Jeremy Nicholas’s enthusiasm entirely and I am equally certain that others will think more highly of tracks that I disliked. There are clearly good things on this disc in abundance, as well as some that are less good. Which is which is a matter for debate.

Bill Kenny

 


 



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