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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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]

 

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This is a fascinating and engrossing compilation: the most remarkable sensation I had was that the musical evocation of Christmas mattered to these performers in a very direct and secure way. There is in almost every track a deep sincerity which I cannot find in many of the recent or current Christmas releases - and I don't think this is a brutally cynical comparison. Not only are there some superb voices displayed here, but the delivery and use of some of the voices seems to go way beyond the technical, and at times reaches magically inspiring heights.

Here is the great Martinelli, fluent phrasing with great dramatic impact - not at all surprising this recording became so popular. This is top-of-the-tree singing. And the young American tenor Richard Crooks, at 25, with engaging narrative energy and an instinctive acknowledgement of how and when to point words and notes, particularly responsive to nuances and changes of tempo, well supported by a willing orchestra in The Star of Bethlehem. He was already a complete artist with knowing delivery and awesome vocal quality, a truly great voice. Also the 27-year-old Victoria de los Angeles, making a haunting Catalonian carol delectable in every bar, with inventive colouration of voice and vowels, ably supported by a guitar duo.

Ernestine Schumann-Heinck gives a version of Stille Nacht which has more changes of tempo and pulse than an opera, yet it is utterly convincing and full of personal conviction. The combination of rhythmic flexibility, dynamic shaping and nuance, plus sincerity, is unbeatable. The Danish tenor, Aksel Schiotz, gives two extracts from Messiah displaying a refined line and admirable diction, and floating a genuinely moving interpretation on a very pleasing, light vocal timbre.

John McCormack is instantly a recognisable voice and artist, and his contributions here reach varied success. The setting of Adeste Fideles is quite superb, and includes, in the fine chorus, a young Crooks and others. Gladys Swarthout, U.S. mezzo, makes a significant impression in the Appalachian Song I wonder as I wander, as does Dorothy Maynor, the black U.S. soprano in Go Tell it on the Mountain.

There is a spine-chilling thrill in Frenchman Georges Thill's account of Adam's Cantique de Noel, and Lawrence Tibbett's singing of A star was his candle is one of the greatest pleasures on the disc, demonstrating how to use a superb instrument to telling expressive effect with apparently natural instinct.

Less impressive are the rare Richard Tauber recording of White Christmas (overdone and inconsistent vocally), McCormack's The Holy Child (highly over-enunciated) and Der Tannenbaum in duet by Hulda Lashanska and Paul Reimers.

Real treats remain however in Rosa Ponselle's gracefully accomplished Gounod Ave Maria - almost perfect - and Claudia Muzio, soprano, delivering Ninna-Nanna della Vergine by Reger so well that I'd almost become a Reger convert. The soft upper register is exquisite, and the sensitive simplicity of the composition is adorned by the controlled tone and dynamic of Muzio's performance in all registers and volumes - breathtakingly assured.

In all, a marvellously enjoyable disc which brings unforced smiles through great artistry and unshakeable musical conviction - no other present required!

Colin Touchin

 

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and Bill Kenny



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