The theological bait-and-switch of turning George Frideric Handel's Easter oratorio "Messiah" into a Christmas warhorse was probably the product of good intentions: According to one theory, the work proved such a guaranteed moneymaker that it soon became the draw of choice for Yuletide charity concerts. Still, the seasonal incongruity provides cover for any familiarity-bred contempt of yet another "Hallelujah" chorus. Forthwith, here are three recent recordings of truly Christmas-themed classical music to, if only fleetingly, take its place.
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: HODIE, FANTASIA ON CHRISTMAS CAROLS
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Guildford Choral Society, conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton (Naxos)
Ralph Vaughan Williams's large-scale Christmas cantata "Hodie" ("This Day") was composed for the 1954 Three Choirs Festival at England's Worcester Cathedral, making it a postwar exemplar of a typically Victorian/Edwardian provincial tradition, the combining of choirs from neighboring towns for massive annual concerts. The text ranges wide: the biblical account of the Nativity, carols old and new (a couple penned by Vaughan Williams's wife, Ursula), and devotional poetry from Milton to Hardy, all set in the grand manner, alternating between the composer's most vigorous folk-influenced proclamations and his lushest impressionism.
Neither piece nor performance is particularly nuanced - the opening and closing movements are sustained blasts of full-throated volume, and the brassy, cinematic excess of the "March of the Three Kings" sounds as if the Magi are being pulled along by Charlton Heston and a cast of thousands. But the ensemble is solidly tight, the choral sound big and secure.
Soprano Janice Watson and the women of the chorus give a ravishing account of Milton's "It was the winter wild," with its luminous whole-tone harmonies. Tenor Peter Hoare makes a somewhat verismo angel Gabriel, but his soaring tone carries William Drummond's "Bright portals of the sky." Stephen Gadd's stentorian baritone lends gravity to the work's moodier movements, including a gentle setting of Hardy's "The Oxen"; Gadd and the chorus also anchor a stately reading of Vaughan Williams's earlier "Fantasia on Christmas Carols."
KAROLJU: CHRISTMAS MUSIC FROM
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus, conducted by David Zinman (RCA Red Seal)
American composer Christopher Rouse's exuberant forgery "Karolju" gets its first recording, 16 years after conductor David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony premiered it. Rouse invented both the faux-ancient, ruthlessly tonal carols and the texts - vaguely nonsensical concatenations of Christmas-related words in a host of European languages - and then opted for orchestration explicitly reminiscent of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." The result is a boisterous behemoth, a slightly hallucinatory channeling of a parallel-universe Yuletide.
The piece is almost too shamelessly entertaining not to recommend, but the performance leaves some things to be desired: slapdash rhythms leech the music's energy, and the chorus, heavy on its feet and hazy of diction, drags the tempo.
Witold Lutoslawski first arranged his set of "Polish Christmas Carols" for voice and piano in the 1940s; late in his career, he gave a choral/orchestral sheen to his off-balance, ear-tickling harmonies, by turns mysterious and wry. Soprano Julia Doyle brings a serene, quiet intensity to her solos, but despite an elegant instrumental sound, chorus and ensemble are again flat, with fast sections lagging and languid passages tipping over into passivity. (A Naxos recording of the work, with Antoni Wit conducting the Polish Radio Symphony and Choir, has better rhythmic impetus and textual clarity.)
The last selections provide some redemption. Mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany brings wit and color to three of Joaquín Rodrigo's "Retablo de Navidad," and, with the chorus out of the way, the orchestra follows suit in sympathetic accompaniment.
BERLIOZ: L'ENFANCE DU CHRIST
London Symphony Orchestra, Tenebrae Choir, conducted by Sir Colin Davis (LSO Live)
At the center of Hector Berlioz's "The Childhood of Christ" is another playful hoax. The "Shepherds' Farewell to the Holy Family," the most famous excerpt of this work's "sacred trilogy," was originally passed off by the composer as the work of a fictional 17th-century choirmaster. Much of the piece exhibits archaic touches: modal melody, hints of plainchant, rustic harmonies.
But this is Berlioz at the height of his powers, with an absolutely sure sense of pacing and tone. The work grew out from the middle: The "Shepherds' Farewell" became the center of a three-movement portrayal of "The Flight Into Egypt," as Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus flee Herod's post-Nativity wrath. Berlioz then surrounded it with "Herod's Dream," soothsayers interpreting the troubled king's portents of Christ, and "The Arrival at Saïs," in which the Holy Family meet a harsh reception in Egypt but are welcomed into an Ishmaelite home.
The performance, recorded in concert late last year, is an atmospheric, vivid marvel. The orchestra taps a wealth of varied color in Berlioz's often chamber-sized instrumentation. The chorus sings with fine-grained sensitivity, the a cappella finale magically lucid. The soloists are uniformly excellent, particularly Yann Beuron, whose pearly, clarion tenor provides the narration, and bass Matthew Rose, who presents a haunting, brooding insomniac Herod.
Conductor Colin Davis cements his status as a master of Berlioz's music, capturing the sweep and the details, the momentum and the repose. Berlioz intended the piece to recall "old illuminated missals," but it's an incisive dramatic sense that triumphs. He keeps the listener engaged in the vital moment; shorn of easy sentimentality, the music's grace is all the more wondrous for being hard-earned. Not to put too fine a point on it: Hallelujah.