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A Finnish Christmas
R. RAALA (1886-1971)
Joulukirkkoon [2.33]
James PIERPOINT (1822-1893)
Jingle Bells [3.36]
Pekka SIMOJOKI (b. 1958)
May Christmas Come [4.58]
Leevi MADETOJA (1887-1947)
Arkihoulesi Kaikki Heitä [4.13]
Trad. – J. F. COOTS (1897-1985)
Santa Lucia - Santa Claus is Coming to Town [5.12]
Johnny MARKS (1909-1985)
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer [4.28]
Irving BERLIN (1888-1989)
White Christmas [4.28]
Lyyli WARTIOVAARA-KALLIONEMI (1887-1970)
Tontuu [6.38]
Trad. Puuropotpuri [3.38]
Katherine K. DAVIS – Trad. (1892-1929)
The Little Drummer Boy – Joy to the World [5.50]
Trad. Entre le Boeuf et l’Ane Gris [3.37]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
En Etsi Valtaa, Loistoa [3.46]
George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Rejoice, O Daughter of Zion [4.44]
Jaakko KUUSISTO (b. 1974)
Jouluevankeliumi [9.59]
Ikka KUUSISTO (b. 1933)
Tule Hiutale [3.44]; Minun Jouluni [2.21]
Harry AHMAS (b. 1957)
Me Hohteen Kirkkaimman Näimme [6.13]
Jukka Perko (saxophone); Riki Sorsa (vocals); Laulupuu Choir
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Esa Heikkilä
rec. January/May 2008, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland
BIS BIS-CD-1747 [80.00]
Experience Classicsonline

Many people, nominally adult, still retain a child-like delight in Christmas. I am one of those people, which is why I was delighted to receive this disc for review so far into the New Year that the festive season had almost been forgotten. Thanks to the admirable BIS policy of not deleting their recordings, readers can be sure that it will still be available to raise the spirits next year.
 
Having said that, the disc is not at all what I expected, nor is it a typical BIS production. Perhaps the best way of introducing it is to quote from the record company’s website:
 
With the exception of a few misguided Swedes, we all know that Santa Claus lives in Finland. So what could be more fitting than a disc of Finnish Christmas classics, in lavish orchestral arrangements performed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, only 240 miles south of Santa’s home in Rovaniemi.
 
Now “lavish orchestral arrangements” is no exaggeration! There’s plenty of percussion – wood block, xylophones, tambourines and other jingly things – plus a liberal helping of harp, rich brass and soaring strings. Most of the music is sung by the Laulupuu Choir, a group based in Lahti and made up of young people between the ages of ten and seventeen, but there are some solos too, as well as purely orchestral pieces. The repertoire is made up of arrangements of traditional material, some original light pieces plus works from more conventionally classical composers, but for quite a long time I seemed to be listening to a disc of extracts from musical comedies rather than specifically Christmas music.
 
There is some superb saxophone playing from Jukka Perko in the fourth piece, a work by Madetoja about which this listener would have liked more help from the accompanying notes. This is a complaint one might level against the disc as a whole, interesting and fun though the booklet essay is. Perko appears again in Irving Berlin’s evergreen White Christmas, in the arrangement of Sibelius’s En etsi valtaa, Loistoa as well as, most surprisingly, playing some snatches of Handel in an arrangement entitled Rejoice, O Daughter of Zion which veers alarmingly from jazz to pure show-biz through cod-baroque … and back again. I assume it is the Leader of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra who so adroitly provides the solo, Stéphane Grappelli-style, in Santa Claus is Coming to Town, preceded as it is by a hauntingly lovely arrangement of the Italian folk song Santa Lucia.
 
A rhapsodic, almost symphonic arrangement of The Little Drummer Boy leads into Joy to the World, and you won’t need particularly sharp ears to hear the vestiges of the drummer boy in the second part of the arrangement. And having conducted Entre le boeuf et l’âne gris with French choirs myself on numerous Christmas occasions over the past twenty years, I was a bit bemused by this Finnish version, to the point where I don’t think I would have recognised it had the title not been translated in the booklet. It’s a beautiful arrangement, though, for unaccompanied children’s choir, most successful and atmospheric.
 
There are a couple of longer original pieces, including Jouluevankeliumi, a setting of the Nativity story from St. Luke by Jaakko Kuusisto. This is melodious, undemanding music which, like the rest of the disc, is quite superbly sung by the Laulupuu Choir. Always beautifully in tune, with plenty of zest when required, these young singers give the impression that they are thoroughly enjoying themselves, as does, for that matter, each and ever member of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. As for the sound quality, I think this is one of the most beautiful recordings I’ve ever encountered, though I seem to find that each time I hear a BIS CD.
 
So who could ask for more at Christmas? Well, it’s not the collection of arrangements of Finnish traditional Christmas songs I was expecting, and potential purchasers should be forewarned about those lavish arrangements. Some might think it all rather twee, or that a little goes a long way.
 
Others might not.
 
William Hedley
 

 


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