trading fours: holidays

Seriously busy week here. No time to catch any live music – or, write about it. Or do much of anything outside of keeping on top of the landslide that always seems to happen in the last couple of weeks of the year. You too, I’m sure. So let’s give ourselves a little time out here and talk music.

It’s been a while since we ‘traded fours’. Before the year completely gets away from us – again – I thought we’d check in and see what ideas we could cook up here for a late-December listening session.

This is the time of the year for that popular question, “what are your favorite holiday recordings?” We all have a few, and I can tell you, I have a LOT more than four. As a child of the ’70s I’d have to put Elvis’ Blue Christmas, John Denver’s Muppet Christmas (yes, really), and Luciano Pavarotti’s Christmas recordings on the list of sentimental faves. I also became very fond of the Gene Autry recording. My mom played it a lot because that’s the one she grew up with. Add to that the scores of recordings I’ve discovered and made part of the yearly tradition since then.

But I think I can pick four holiday recordings to share with you here, and maybe I’ll throw in a few more later on. I hope you will too  – leave a comment here if you’d like. For this “trading fours” session we’ll start with a few classical suggestions:

#1 – The Baltimore Consort: “Bright Day Star” – With everything from “Ding Dong Merrily On High” to the “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” and the Wassail song, what makes this one different from all the other versions of those pieces? The simplicity of the arrangements, the purity of Custer LaRue’s voice, the exciting virtuosity and nimbleness of the Consort itself, and the sheer joy that comes through in every singing, dancing bar of this wonderful recording. This one’s a “must have”.

#2 – The Boston Camerata & Sharq Arabic Ensemble/Joel Cohen: “A Mediterranean Christmas” – Two years ago around this time I attended a concert here with the Boston Camerata. It was right after they had released this recording. I couldn’t wait. And while the music was just as transcendent and gorgeous as I had hoped it would be, what I’ll never forget about the experience was Joel Cohen’s remarks in the program notes, wherein he mentioned that this is the music to remind us that Christ was born in the desert, surrounded by palm – not evergreen – trees. The recording features traditional Spanish/Arabic music from the 12th -16th centuries, and the special percussion and mid-eastern vocals the Sharq Arabic Ensemble brings to the mix is guaranteed to warm even the coldest days of late December. I can’t remember what Christmas was like before this musical revelation came along.

#3 – The Dale Warland Singers/Dale Warland: “December Stillness” – This one lives up to its name and then some. It’s the perfect reflective antidote to the busy-ness of the season. Two favorite tracks are Alf Houkoum’s recently written work, “Rune of Hospitality”, and Stephen Heitzig’s poignant setting of the ee cummings poem, “Little Tree”. December Stillness will wipe the discord of jangling bells, the bombast of 300-voice choirs blaring bland Christmas carols, and the artificiality of our 21st c. world right out of your consciousness. This is a recording that speaks to the mystery, wonder, and snow-covered quietude of our midwinter world.

#4 – The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Paul Hillier: “A New Joy” – Austerity and the pure power of the human voice are the hallmarks of this exquisite recording, along with a rich repertoire from the Eastern Orthodox tradition that so rarely is heard here in the West. With composers like Grechaninov, Kastsalky, Izvekov, and Stensenko – A New Joy promises a listening experience that light years away from the usual Christmas fare. You’ll recognize Rachmaninoff’s “Blessed is the Man” from the Vespers, and certainly the Ukrainian carol (the “Carol of the Bells”) will be a familiar melody. Otherwise be prepared to surrender yourself to the other-worldly sound of the very fine Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and their vision of an Orthodox Christmas.

That’s it for today, and I hope enjoy them if you take some time to explore these suggestions. Don’t let the white noise of busy-ness keep you from the joys of the season. Cheers!

Trading Fours is an occasional series here designed to build your music library and share ideas about favorite recordings, in the long tradition of learning about music from friends. If you have picks to share leave a comment here. Send me your four choices along with a quick explanation of the theme that holds them together. I’ll post here to share with everyone else.

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