Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Five excerpts from The Nutcracker [16:36]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Four excerpts from The Water Music [11:08]
Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706)
Canon in D [5:13]
Anonymous, arr. Gerard SCHWARZ (b.1947)
Silent Night [6:23]
Variations on Greensleeves [4:36]
We three kings of Orient are/We wish you a Merry Christmas [4:55]
Anonymous, arr. Samuel JONES (b.1935)
O little town of Bethlehem [3:45]
Anonymous, arr. Ben HAUSMANN (?-)
Gesu Bambino [5:23]
Coventry Carol [4:32]
Tracks are listed in playing order after review
John Cerminaro, Adam Iascone, Susan Carroll, Mark Robbins (French horns); Christopher Olka (tuba); Maria Larionoff (violin); Ben Hausmann, Shannon Spicciati (oboes); Paul Rafanelli (bassoon); Kimberly Russ (celesta); Valerie Muzzolini Gordon (harp)
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Benaroya Hall, Seattle, USA, 11 December 2007, 1 January 2008, 11 March 2008, 13 and 15 May 2008
NAXOS 8.572673 [62:29]
This album is a class act. The programming is clever. Highlights from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite and the baroque era form bookends and interludes between chic arrangements of traditional carols. The concept is clever since it features the Seattle Symphony’s own composers, arrangers, and very talented soloists. The results are wonderful too. In the world of purely orchestral Christmas albums, this is about as good as it gets.
Not that I wasn’t a little worried. For one thing, the first track (the Nutcracker’s overture) features some slightly shaky playing, uncharacteristic of the excellent Seattle Symphony. That soon righted itself, fortunately. Another worry I had was simpler. I don’t like Christmas music. I just don’t. I’m some kind of tonal Grinch. My total voluntary Christmas music listening every year is about one hour, give or take. I don’t have anything against Christmas; just the music.
Exceptions can be made, though. The artistic appeal here exceeds your typical holiday album. For one thing, the Seattle Symphony’s soloists are accorded a full showcase: the violinist, two oboists, four horn players, a bassoonist, celesta, harp and even tuba all get credited moments in the spotlight. For another, the orchestra’s artists have contributed to the music as it’s written on the page. Conductor Gerard Schwarz provides his own variations on ‘Greensleeves’ and a simply luminous French horn quartet rendition of ‘Silent Night’. The rest of the orchestra joins, but their parts aren’t as inspired as the horn writing; Schwarz, a trumpeter, got his start playing in and writing for brass. Principal oboist Ben Hausmann, whose playing has been singled out for praise before on this site, adds two Christmas carol arrangements of his own, and you can’t fault him for giving himself a lyrical solo in the especially lovely ‘Coventry Carol.’ The orchestra’s house composer, Samuel Jones (featured on another very good CD), contributes ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,’ maybe the disc’s standout track. Sure, there’s a touch of nostalgia here - a single church bell at the very end - but this is a Christmas album, and the arrangement is as comforting as a warm fire.
Dancing around these carols are bits from Handel’s Water Music, touched up by Schwarz for modern orchestra, and about half of the Nutcracker suite. Even Pachelbel’s Canon makes a bearable appearance, and if you chafe at the clunky old writing for bass, don’t worry: Samuel Jones gives the lower strings the very first crack at ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ on the album’s next track. That’s the kind of thoughtfulness which makes this Christmas CD a cut above.
Regrets, I have but two. That Tchaikovsky overture’s slightly scrappy violins, and a rather sluggish old-fashioned reading of the ‘air’ from Water Music. Give me Jordi Savall any day. Otherwise this was really a pleasure. The sound is very close-up, good mostly but listening carefully to the “Russian Dance” I noticed the soundstage audibly shift leftward from 0:36-0:43—must have been a poorly spliced edit. I don’t think I’ve commended Christmas music, of any kind, since Harry Connick Jr.’s first holiday album (well, there was the single by Stephen Colbert). This is well worth it just for the luminous French horns in ‘Silent Night’. Don’t believe me? The last track is ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas,’ and there’s an extensive piccolo solo, and the Grinch inside me didn’t say a thing.
P.S. I had a friend who actually likes Christmas music download the album and give it a listen. He says he’s glad he made the purchase and adds some comments, which I’ve edited since they were sent to me via SMS: “Water Music pretty. Fits the mood well, but is it actually Christmas music? I think this CD does best with the orchestrations of traditional carols. Greensleeves wonderful, tender, very emotional. The [violin] soloist is very talented. This Silent Night is hauntingly beautiful. Wow. Wow. Coventry Carol was kinda bland. Gesu Bambino is nice, but it seems like an odd choice, since it’s not familiar to English speakers. Why not stick with O Come All Ye Faithful? Love the We Three Kings/Wish You a Merry Christmas medley. Fun, playful, with pretty grand finale (though it suffers a bit from weak brass). The Pachelbel and Water Music kinda felt like filler; I continue to believe that the orchestrations of carols are the real reason to get this CD. I am happy with my purchase; it would make great background music for a holiday party. Ah I want Christmas now!”
The Grinch inside me didn’t say a thing. Instead my Christmas-carol-hating heart grew a size or two.
1. Nutcracker – overture
2. Silent Night (arr. Schwarz)
3. Allegro from Water Music, Suite No 1 (ed. Schwarz)
4. Variations on Greensleeves
5. Nutcracker – march
6. Canon in D
7. O little town of Bethlehem (arr. Jones)
8. Bourée from Water Music, Suite No 1 (ed. Schwarz)
9. Nutcracker – Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy
10. Nutcracker – Russian Dance
11. Air from Water Music, Suite No 1 (ed. Schwarz)
12. Gesu Bambino (arr. Hausmann)
13. Hornpipe from Water Music, Suite No 1 (ed. Schwarz)
14. Coventry Carol (arr. Hausmann)
15. Nutcracker – Waltz of the Flowers
16. We Three Kings/We Wish You a Merry Christmas (arr. Schwarz)