Culture > Music

Music: Real Christmas music

Music | Discovering unusual but authentic carols of faith

Issue: "Veggie Mania," Dec. 12, 1998

Exploring releases of unusual but beautiful offerings from less known labels beyond the usual holiday fare will be like shopping for gifts in an antique shop, rather than in a new mall. L'ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde (World's End Choir) in one unusual release, Noels Celtique, reveals a vast repertoire of music from the heirs of the ancient Celtic tribes in Brittany. Some attractive music features colorful sounds like bagpipe and organ in a duo. But its provincial charm is marred by artistic drawbacks: The choristers are amateurs. And, despite its desire to "promote and enrich the musical and cultural heritage of Brittany," its frequent mix of folk and popular sounds leaves a quaint but flawed snapshot of community musical expression. It is different, but not quite what I expected. By contrast, Polygram's The All-Star Christmas Album blends artistry with intelligent marketing. Deutsche Grammophon, once the most powerful (and still the oldest) recording company in Europe, boasts in its catalog conductors of the stature of Von Karajan and John Eliot Gardiner. Its parent company, Polygram, compensates for the financial difficulties of recording classical music with a range of rock, pop, and crossover offerings. Such marketing permits what amounts (in this case) to a stunning array of holiday music performed by stars like Kiri Te Kanawa ("Silent Night"), Kathleen Battle (Mozart's "Agnus Dei" from Coronation Mass), Sarah Brightman (Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Pie Jesu" from Requiem), Placido Domingo, Bryn Terfel, and Trevor Pinnock. Polygram's repackaging gleans brilliant performances from other disks into a pastiche of DG's best. Virtually everything on this CD is musical gold: Bryn Terfel's heartfelt version of Hairston's "Mary's Boy Child" is dramatic and polished; Bach's "Jauchzet, froh locke" (from Christmas Oratorio) is given fresh energy by The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. It provides 70 minutes of delightful Christmas listening. In a quest for depth over entertainment, Luminous Spirit evokes Nativity images from medieval Europe. The star here is Hildegard von Bingen on the 900th anniversary of her birth; a flurry of releases from many labels feature her vast output of vocal and instrumental music. Musicologists flutter about Hildegard's unusual life and music, and her reputation as the first woman to achieve a major prominence in the cultural and religious life of the Middle Ages. The performers are early music specialists who serve up the mystical texts and unusual melodies with understated virtuosity. Rosa Lamoreaux sings Hildegard's gentle but wide-ranging melodies poignantly, with frequent but appropriate ornamentation and minimal vibrato. Scott Reiss and Tina Chancey (members of Hesperus) enhance and decorate her vocal stylings with recorder, viol, harp, and lute accompaniments, adding improvised lines of music to the composed ones. The hushed aura of instrument-only numbers only heightens the vocal ones by contrast. Why are Hildegard's hymns, antiphons, responsories, and sequences finding increased acceptance among 20th-century listeners? They embody a certainty of conviction and steadiness of gaze rare among the postmodern religious. Her music is simple, upright, and sincere-enormously appealing qualities all but absent in the 20th-century cultural brothel.

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