I don't know about you, but I've just about had it with the cheesy versions of tired old Christmas carols that we can't seem to escape while going about our annual holiday shopping. If you've spent any time lately in a city mall, you know what I mean. It started in November and frankly, if I hear another I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus or Santa Baby, I'm going to run out screaming.
Local musical groups have, over the years, produced a crop of "alternate" Christmas recordings, mixing the familiar with some less well-known, and all in tasteful arrangements that won't make your skin crawl.
Most of the suggested CDs are in the $20 range and available at McNally Robinson Booksellers, but if you can't find them, contact the choir or ensemble directly via website or phone.
Swingle Bells by The Winnipeg Singers: The 2008 recording is an eclectic blend of traditional and new carol arrangements, both festive and reflective, mainly by Canadian composers such as Andrew Ager, Robert Anderson, Stephen Chatman, Eleanor Daley, Robert Evans, Alexander Tilley, Peter Togni, Graeme Wearmouth, and Healey Willan. There are also nine wonderful sets of carols by the incomparable Ward Swingle. In total, 23 carols from around the world are heard as conductor Yuri Klaz and The Winnipeg Singers bop through these cool jazz arrangements. Winnipeg's own Ron Paley Trio plays on all the Swingle tracks. A refreshing change from the usual fare.
Joy Shall be Yours by Renaissance Voices: Just out last year, this 20-track recording includes Sleigh Ride, The Huron Carol, The Shepherd's Carol and a solid selection of seasonal tunes. Backup musicians accompany on string bass, piano, harp and drums. Conductor Derek Morphy chose a lovely program of music that is easy on the ears.
Home for the Holidays by Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra: It's been around for awhile (2005) but this light-hearted CD still brings smiles and even includes a Chanukah Suite. Recorded when Jeff Tyzik, the very popular WSO Pops conductor was still in his heyday, it features super-percussionist Fred Liessens on xylophone in Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, bass Derek Morphy in a stirring Silent Night, Carol of the Bells and Gospel Hallelujah among others. There really is something for every taste on this 13-track CD. The WSO informs me that there are fewer than 50 copies left, so if you're at their gala Messiah performance this Saturday you might want to snag one then.
Nova Noël by Camerata Nova: You may not recognize many of the carols on this CD (with Coventry Carol and O Jesulein Süss as exceptions), but the serene nature of it will lull you into ultimate relaxation and a calmer kind of Christmas spirit. Who can argue with that? Traditional early carols, with several contemporary arrangements by Andrew Balfour, accompanied by unusual instruments (percussion and crystal bowls) with the pristine ensemble singing of Camerata Nova are true gifts.
Stille Nacht by Canzona: This one's on my wish list. It is the last in a series of three Canzona-produced recordings devoted to the German hymns and spiritual songs commonly used in Russian Mennonite worship since the 1890s. I have Lasst die Herzen immer fröhlich, released last year, and it has become a true favourite. Canzona has genuinely captured a wonderful Old World charm that makes this a treasure. Conductor Henry Engbrecht has honed his choir to perfection, with German diction that could serve as a teaching tool. Love it! Check out the first in the series, too, Hallelujah! Schöner Morgen.
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If there's a Bach aficionado in your family, you might want to order Michael Lawrence's Bach & Friends. It's a two-hour documentary DVD on Johann Sebastian Bach with an impressive lineup of musicians, scholars and composers performing and waxing eloquent about the master, his music and his times.
Violinists Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn, vocalist Bobby McFerrin, composer Philip Glass, the Emerson String Quartet, pianist Simone Dinnerstein (of Goldberg Variations renown), cellist Matt Haimovitz, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, bassist Edgar Meyer, banjoist Béla Fleck, musicologists Andrew Talle and Christoph Wolff plus many more fascinating people share their own personal reflections on Bach and his undeniable influence on music.
The content is stimulating and educational, even if the production itself is not a great work of art. The performances (a bonus DVD with Joshua Bell playing the Chaconne is included) are enjoyable and the insights and background are absorbing. Strange lighting and backdrops as well as unflattering close-ups can be overlooked if your focus is on the subject.
The two-DVD set is $39.95 at www.mlfilms.com/productions/bach_project and there is a special holiday offer available until the end of the year.