A Very Pristine Christmas. A Collection of Historic Recordings
1. Christmas Overture (Coleridge-Taylor) - BBC Wireless Orchestra/Percy Pitt, UK Columbia 9137, rec. 23/2/1926 [6:23]
2. Joy To The World (Watts) - Siena Pianoforte played by Grace Castagnetta, Counterpoint CPT 1503, rec. 1957 [2:13]
Quatre Visages (Milhaud) - Michael Mann (viola), Dika Newlin (piano), DGG EPL 30295, rec. 1957 
3. 1. La Californienne [2:24]
4. 2. The Wisconsonian [1:25]
5. 3. La Bruxelloise [3:54]
6.  4. La Parisienne [2:24]
7. O Little Town of Bethlehem (Brooks) - Siena Pianoforte played by Grace Castagnetta, Counterpoint CPT 1503 [2:19]
8. In Ecclesiis (G. Gabrieli) - Alexander, Deller, Wynton, Riley, Dawkes, Chorus and Goldsbrough Orchestra HMV HMS.29, rec.1950 [8:19]
9. Hark, The Herald Angels Sing (Mendelssohn) - Siena Pianoforte played by Grace Castagnetta, Counterpoint CPT 1503 [2:52]
10. Hansel and Gretel - Overture (Humperdinck) - Symphony Orchestra/Albert Coates, HMV D.1261, rec. 26/10/1926 [6:49]
11. I Saw Three Ships (Trad.) - Siena Pianoforte played by Grace Castagnetta, Counterpoint CPT 1503 [1:32]
12. Te Deum in G (Vaughan Williams) - St George's Chapel Choir, Windsor Castle, directed by Harris, Columbia LX.1289, rec. 1949 [7:20]
13. What Child Is This (Trad.) - Siena Pianoforte played by Grace Castagnetta, Counterpoint CPT 1503 [3:12]
14. Adeste Fideles (Wade, arr. Ponchon) - Flonzaley Quartet, Victor 1352, rec. 18/10/1928 [3:21]
15. Deck The Halls (Trad.) - Siena Pianoforte played by Grace Castagnetta, Counterpoint CPT 1503 [2:02]
16. Gloria in excelsis (Weelkes) - Westminster Abbey Special Choir, HMV H.1083, rec. 1925 or 1926 [3:58]
17. Oh, Holy Night (Adam) - Siena Pianoforte played by Grace Castagnetta, Counterpoint CPT 1503 [4:45]
18. The First Nowell (Trad. arr. Ponchon) - Flonzaley Quartet, Victor 1352, rec. 18/10/1928 [2:38]
Transfers and remastering: 
1, 14, 18: Mark Obert-Thorn   
2, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17: Dr. John Duffy   
3-6: Peter Harrison    
8, 12, 16: Andrew Rose   
10: Ward Marston
A phalanx of re-mastering’s finest has been engaged to produce this festive feast from Pristine Audio. It contains an oddball selection of cuts interspersed by some serious minded ones, tracks that are hard to come by, or are just appropriate. That said it wears its programming quite lightly, leavening things throughout with the sound of Grace Castagnetta’s Siena Pianoforte and its seasonal interludes.
It’s appropriate to start there. Since the instrument is something of a rarity, let me briefly quote Pristine’s on-line notes: ‘The Siena Pianoforte has an intriguing history, though reading references one finds some are sceptical about the later segments! (see article) This highly ornate keyboard instrument was built in 1800 as a wedding present for a Siena farmer and his wife. After being sent to the Paris Exhibition of 1867, it was given to Crown Prince Umberto the following year again as a wedding present. It surfaced in the North African desert during the Second World War and was taken to Palestine, where it again vanished and resurfaced. Several LPs were issued in the mid-1950s, including one made by Charles Rosen, and the one used here made by Grace Castagnetta in which she plays a selection of Christmas carols and tunes, used here as interludes to the whole programme. The instrument produces an interesting sound, and may well steer some listeners to the other discs.’ I should add that in addition to the Rosen LP others were made by Anatole Kitain, no less, as well as Marisa Regules and Kathryn Deguire.
Its sound is a cross between a fortepiano, Landowska’s Pleyel harpsichord, Diana Poulton’s thwacking lute - as thunderously recorded on those early electric John Goss recordings for HMV - and a soupçon of Sidonie Goossens’s harp. The recordings are often rollickingly done, as befits the behemoth of an instrument; sonorous is the word I’m looking for, though subtle isn’t.
There are some interesting things to acquire. Percy Pitt dishes out Coleridge-Taylor’s Christmas Overture on an early electric. This festive tapestry may have influenced such things to come as Quilter’s Children’s Overture for example. One oddball offering, and not a very seasonal one really, is Milhaud’s Quatre Visages, adroitly characterised by violist Michael Mann and pianist Dika Newlin on a 1957 DGG. Milhaud’s charm is evident, and these national character sketches are whimsically done. The Californian lady is suitably laid back, the one from Wisconsin is a busy-bee; the lady from Brussels is phlegmatic, possibly even frumpish, whilst the Parisienne is something of a goer.
The Goldsbrough Orchestra’s Gabrieli – recorded in 1950, with Deller in the ranks - has a hefty grandeur. Combustible Albert Coates is on hand with a less well known item from his discography – the overture to Hansel and Gretel, a recording made in 1926. The Weelkes Gloria in excelsis is sung by the Westminster Abbey Special Choir in another early electric and a valuable reclamation. There are also two performances by the august Flonzaley Quartet from 1928, beautifully done with their usual ineffable lightness.
Most of the numbers have been transferred using ‘Ambient Stereo’. It imparts warmth at least. So, a very different offering indeed. You’ll be amused by the Siena Pianoforte (I think), take succour from the vocal pieces, and enjoy the Flonzaley. For next year this writer suggests a backbone employing the Flonzaley methodology; the US Decca sides of Christmas tunes recorded by the London String Quartet in arrangements, some of which were by Anthony Collins. Gorgeous playing – and never reissued.
Jonathan Woolf

A festive feast from Pristine Audio … see Full Review