Monday, December 15, 2008

Five discs for the holidays

By Scott Simmons

The Christmas season is here, which means standard listening fare gets put on hold in favor of a few choice holiday recordings. Yes, there's holly, there's ivy and there's a heaping helping of good cheer. This is what's in my CD player:

1. In the Spirit, Jessye Norman (Polygram) — Norman wraps her voluptuous soprano around some of the great sugarplums of the season. You'll never hear Angels From the Realms of Glory in the same way after listening to her version, with the Orchestra of St. Luke's, conducted by David Robertson. Many of the songs are a capella, with just Norman and the choirs. Away in a Manger never sounded so ethereal.

2. Christmas with Thomas Hampson (Telarc) — O Holy Night is here, and the baritone's Joy to the World gives us reason to be gratified. But Hampson tones down his operatic stylings for an intimate White Christmas, and he captures the spirit of such German classics as O du Fröliche on this album, featuring the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra conducted by Hugh Wolff. And his Go Tell it on the Mountain is fun, in the spirit of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring.

3. The Christmas Album, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (EMI) — I live for Schwarzkopf's bracing I Saw Three Ships on this 1957 recording, featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles MacKerras. Her Stille Nacht includes the guitar of the young Julian Bream, and The First Nowell conveys the right sense of wonder. As always, her diction is impeccable. And listen to how the German soprano's voice soars above the Ambrosian Chorus on Von Himmel Hoch.

4. Noël, Joan Baez (Vanguard) — The Queen of Folk meets P.D.Q. Bach himself on this 1966 recording, and what fun it is. Peter Schickele conducts Baez in such songs as O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and the sprightly Down in Yon Forest, and in other carols in French and German, including Adam's Cantique de Noël (O Holy Night) and Schubert's Ave Maria. Vanguard's reissue of the disc includes outtakes and an essay by Schickele.

5. Carols for All Seasons, Jean Ritchie (Tradition) — Kentucky-born Ritchie lends her reedy soprano to a variety of Anglo-Appalachian carols. Ritchie, who plays dulcimer music, is accompanied by harpsichord and recorder on such favorites as The Carnal and the Crane, I Saw Three Ships and Down in Yon Forest on this 1959 recording. My pick: Dames Get Up and Bake Your Pies. Ritchie, a folk-music scholar now in her 80s, still sings and teaches. Check her Web site:

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