If ever a cathedral choir produced a seasoned vintage sound it’s the Regensberger Domspatzen (Regensberg Cathedral Sparrows), founded in the year 975 and in modern times – from 1964 to 1994 – conducted (in 1988) by, among others, the cathedral’s music director Georg Ratzinger. Readers in search of a themed Christmas CD could hardly do better than Christmas Concert, with radiant soprano Helen Donath, Regensberger Domspatzen and the Munich Radio Orchestra under another Old School maestro, Kurt Eichhorn, on Orfeo C230091, c£11.25. The Choir’s liveliness and warmth of tone are apparent right from the first track, Messiah’s ‘For Unto Us’, which launches a Messiah sequence, that includes an entrancing ‘Pifa’ (Pastorale), ‘There were shepherds abiding in the fields’, beautifully sung by Donath (in German rather than in English, as she sings it on Karl Richter’s LPO recording for DG) and, to close, a grand, lusty ‘Hallelujah’ where, as elsewhere, either Ratzinger or Eichhorn audibly stamp on the rostrum. Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, expressively played though not without vitality, recalls the days of, say, Fritz Lehmann and those of a similar mindset; there are moving performances of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus and Laudate Dominum, the latter, like Exsultate, jubilateagain featuring Donath as soloist while the Choir treats us to a sequence of Christmas carols, including Adeste fideles. I can’t think of a lovelier serenade for Christmas morning.
A more wholesomely extrovert Christmas celebration arrives from Chandos with Sir Malcolm Arnold’s rarely heard Commonwealth Christmas Overture which keeps to the words of its title with an interlude that calls on bongos, conga, maracas, and marimba in a spirited Caribbean-tinged passage that also features two electric guitars and electric bass (beam up 9:05 on track 1). The same programme also includes Arnold’s thematically memorable First Clarinet Concerto, his Divertimento No. 2, a colourfully scored early piece called Larch Trees(Arnold’s Op. 3) and a much later work, Philharmonic Concerto (Op.130). All is well performed and superbly recorded, and the selection closes with Philip Lane’s orchestration of a brass band piece celebrating the inauguration of what was in 1968 a new lifeboat for the Cornish town of Padstow, the march The Padstow Lifeboat, its most uproarious aspect being an imitated foghorn. Another disc to lift the seasonal spirits (Rumon Gamba conducts the BBC Philharmonic, Chandos CHAN 20152, c£12.75).
Other memorable recent Chandos releases include Sir Andrew Davis’s BBC Philharmonic coupling of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C and Symphony in Three Movements (Chandos CHSA5315, c£12.75, coupled with the ‘Greetings Prelude’ (where Happy Birthday becomes an extended raspberry), the Circus Polka (which ends by taking an hilarious pot shot at Schubert) and an elegant account of the Suite taken from Stravinsky’s Tchaikovsky-based ballet The Fairy’s Kiss. Davis is an incisive Stravinskyan who turns the 3-movement Symphony into a war zone more comparable with The Rite of Spring than anything else in the composer’s output while the C major work’s first movement cuts with a sharpened blade – cue 5:20 in and you could as well be listening to the most fearsome music from The Sleeping Beauty, more so than anything in the Tchaikovsky-inspired Divertimento. A great disc.
So too is John Wilson’s outstanding Rachmaninov disc with the Sinfonia of London (Chandos CHSA5297, c £10.83) which features an impressively transparent Isle of the Dead that ebbs and flows to and from its destination with an unutterable sense of sadness but without a hint of indulgence. Wilson lifts the lovely Vocalise away from potential sentimentality by keeping its expressive line on the move while the Third Symphony, where Old Russia waves meaningfully to the New World, or seems to, is granted one of the most urgent performances it has ever received on disc. When I spoke to Wilson about this programme some months ago (for Gramophone) I was eager to know whether Rachmaninov’s own recording had influenced him. True to form, this most integrity-conscious of musicians hadn’t even listened to it. He didn’t want to be influenced. And the net result of that noble decision? It sounds more like Rachmaninov’s own than any other, save that Chandos state-of-the art sound is magnificent.
I close with a Cole Porter arrangement that Wilson himself, a magician with quality cross-over material, could well credit with a new recording (he has the expertise to make it sound idiomatic), music that as recorded opens in the manner of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, where Carmen Dragon and his Orchestra transform ‘So In Love’ into something far beyond anything Porter himself could have imagined. It is pure magic (on CD 6 of the 17-cd Scribendum set ‘The Art of Carmen Dragon’, c£44.00). The rest of the set’s contents is a mix of light-classical and classical-light, and it ends with a touching and – OK, OK! – marginally sentimental Christmas selection. The playing, by front-ranking session guys, the majority of them from America (though some are from here in the UK), is mostly of exceptional quality while the sound – stereo and mono – is amazingly good for its age.