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December 19, 2006

TT: My favorite Christmas records

- Bethlehem Down (Peter Warlock, recorded by the King's Singers). Poor Peter Warlock, who put out the cat and turned on the gas at the end of a turbulent, too-short life, left behind a goodly number of modern Christmas carols, of which the modally flavored "Bethlehem Down," written in 1927, is the most frequently performed and (in my opinion) the prettiest. This performance is part of an unusually wide-ranging program of carols that also includes an exquisitely sung version of Praetorius's "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen," which might just be my all-time favorite traditional carol.

- Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Tchaikovsky-Shavers, recorded by the John Kirby Sextet). I have a sweet tooth for jazzed-up classics from the swing era, and this riffy, dapper version of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" charms my socks right off.

- A Ceremony of Carols (Benjamin Britten, recorded by Osian Ellis, Sir David Willcocks, and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge). If you've never heard it, order this CD right now.

- The Christmas Song (Mel Tormé and Bob Wells, recorded by the King Cole Trio). Every jazz musician's favorite Christmas song. Nat Cole recorded it three times, once without strings and twice in this simple, elegant arrangement, whose success persuaded Capitol Records that he had a future as a balladeer. The stereo remake is the one you hear on the radio, but it's the second 1946 version with strings that I like best, in part because you can hear Cole singing "reindeers" on the bridge, a charming little slip of the tongue that he fixed the next time around.

- The Difficult Season (Dave Frishberg, recorded by the composer). Leave it to Frishberg to remind us of what we all know but don't like to admit, which is that Christmas can be sad: The tinsel, the reindeer,/The chimney, the sleigh/Are the innocent dreams/Of an innocent day.

- The First Noël (traditional, recorded by Emmylou Harris). A down-home a cappella version, shimmeringly sung by Harris and Sharon and Cheryl White. It's from Light of the Stable, one of the few Christmas albums that's worth hearing from beginning to end--often.

- God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (traditional, recorded by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers). Of all the traditional English carols, this is the one I like best. This version is from Songs of Angels: Christmas Hymns and Carols, a 1994 CD in which Shaw revisited the much-loved a cappella arrangements he first recorded in 1946. The Christmas album to buy if you're only buying one.

- Good Morning Blues (Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, recorded by Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie and His Orchestra). Leadbelly made the first recording of this traditional blues, but it's Jimmy Rushing's 1938 version that gets played during the holidays: Santy Claus, Santy Claus, listen to my plea/Don't send me nuthin' for Christmas/But my baby back to me. Dig Basie's deep-dish piano solo.

- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, recorded by the Singers Unlimited). The most tenderly yearning of all pop songs about Christmas, originally written for Judy Garland to sing in Meet Me in St. Louis. Her youthful studio recording for Decca is a little masterpiece of unaffected sweetness, but permit me to direct you instead to Gene Puerling's iridescent a cappella arrangement. Bonnie Herman is the lead singer, and if her voice doesn't make you shiver, clean your ears. (Yes, I like Chrissie Hynde's version, too.)

- I Wonder as I Wander (Niles-Britten, recorded by Philip Langridge and Graham Johnson). This isn't really an Appalachian folksong, even though it sounds just like the real thing. Folklorist John Jacob Niles wrote it himself in 1933, later recording it to gloriously rough-hewn effect. My favorite version, though, is the one arranged by Benjamin Britten, in which the vocal verses are sung a cappella with the pianist supplying one-handed interludes between each stanza. There's nothing to it, really--nothing but magic. Britten and Peter Pears frequently performed it in concert, but they never got around to recording it, and it was only published posthumously. Until a live performance surfaces, Langridge's finely sung version will suffice.

- Laud to the Nativity (Ottorino Respighi, performed by Charles Bressler, Marie Gibson, Marilyn Horne, the Roger Wagner Chorale, Alfred Wallenstein, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic). Nobody knows this gorgeous piece, composed in 1930 by the man who brought you The Pines of Rome, to which it bears no resemblance whatsoever. When not setting off dynamite under orchestras, Respighi had a taste for faux-archaic harmonies, and Laud to the Nativity is a serene, mellifluously scored exercise in neoclassicism that deserves to be much better known. Perhaps the release of this great old recording (undoubtedly reissued on CD because of the presence of a very young Marilyn Horne) will help to make it so.

- Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, recorded by Woody Herman's First Herd). Totally hip. The arrangement is by Neal Hefti, the trumpet solo by Sonny Berman, the vocal by Herman. Here endeth the lesson, baby.

- Linus & Lucy (Vince Guaraldi, recorded by the Vince Guaraldi Trio). This is the bouncy uptempo number from A Charlie Brown Christmas that everybody remembers and loves, with good reason. Soundtrack jazz from the mid-Sixties tends to be embarrassingly lame, but Guaraldi knocked out the bull's-eye.

Over to Mr. Rifftides:

Maybe I love it because the music is so good, so fresh, that listening to it every year is a rediscovery. Maybe it's because when I hear it, I'm bewitched by the image from long ago of two little boys in their pajamas, transfixed as they watch Linus, Lucy, Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Maybe it's because I knew Guaraldi and in this music he captured his own child-like sense of wonder.

What he said.

- Nun wandre, Maria (Hugo Wolf, recorded by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore). From the Spanish Songbook, a haunting musical evocation of the journey of Mary and Joseph, whose steadfast love is symbolized by the gently spiraling triads in the piano part. Fischer-Dieskau could be over-fussy, but not here, and Moore provides immaculate support.

- O magnum mysterium (Tomás Luis de Victoria, recorded by Dennis Keene and Voices of Ascension). I've loved this austerely mystical motet ever since I first heard the Roger Wagner Chorale sing it three decades ago. That recording never made it to CD, but this one is a more than adequate substitute.

- O magnum mysterium (Morten Lauridsen, recorded by Stephen Layton and Polyphony). A modern classic by an extraordinarily gifted American composer whose work is known only to choral-music buffs. If you still think tonality is dead, listen to this glowing motet and marvel.

- Sleigh Ride (Leroy Anderson, recorded by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony). Anyone who doesn't like Anderson's witty orchestral miniatures is a churl, a spoilsport, and a clod. I still grin every time the trombones start blowing that boogie-woogie bass line under the trumpet solo!

- Swingin' Them Jingle Bells (James Pierpont, recorded by Fats Waller and His Rhythm). Stone guaranteed to blow your mind and adjust your attitude. We're talking major anarchy here.

- White Christmas (Irving Berlin, recorded by Charlie Parker). Written for Bing Crosby to sing in Holiday Inn. The recording I like best, by Joan Morris and William Bolcom, is out of print, so allow me to direct you instead to this aircheck of a Royal Roost broadcast from December 25, 1948. Kenny Dorham, Al Haig, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach back up the king of bebop, who tosses off the tune with a straight face, then burns his way through two solo choruses and a strategically placed quote from "Jingle Bells."

- Winter Wonderland (Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith, recorded by Johnny Mercer). My mother used to sing this song to me when I was a little boy. She hasn't recorded it yet, but Johnny Mercer's 1946 version, sweetly accompanied by Paul Weston and the Pied Pipers, is almost as good. Mercer was, of course, the greatest of all pop-song lyricists, but he was also a splendid singer, lazy and jazzy, and this performance sums him up neatly.

Posted December 19, 2006 12:00 PM

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