The “classical music’s greatest hits” included here (Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” the “Adagio Sostenuto” movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, the “Allegro con brio” movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the excerpt from Barber’s Adagio) render it susceptible to charges of lowest-common-denominator pandering. But from the first notes of the opening piece, Bach’s “Passacaglia,” (BWV 582), the crystal-clear purity of the trio’s attack renders such accusations moot. Bert Lams, Hideyo Moriya, and Paul Richards love this music. Pejorative categorization is the furthest thing from their minds.
The subtitle, “Six Original Compositions by Gustav Hoyer,” is misleading: The sixth composition, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” is a 16-piece suite for solo piano. But, like the five preceding orchestral works, they showcase Hoyer’s gift for mimesis. Whether evoking “Vanity Fair” or the “Delectable Mountain,” Hoyer captures his subjects’ essences so precisely that lyrics would have been superfluous. The reason they aren’t in his 13-minute arrangement of “Abide with Me” is that the operatic soprano Lori Ann Fuller is every bit the equal of Hoyer’s magnificent Orchestra Unleashed.
Based on these exquisitely executed cantatas and sonatas by Couperin, Bernier, Marais, Duphly, and Pignolet de Montéclair, what bliss it must have been to be alive and well and living in France during the pre-Revolution 18th century, when the French baroque period was in full bloom. The intermittent contributions of the soprano Jennifer Paulino alone would have no doubt turned Parisian heads. But it’s Jonathan Rhodes Lee’s harpsichord that would have crystallized the fragile beauty of an age that, to everyone’s detriment, was soon to vanish.
Under the sensitive direction of Wendell Nisly, this a cappella Mennonite ensemble takes selections such as “Jesus Loves Me,” “When Peace Like a River” (“It Is Well with My Soul”), and “What a Wonderful World” at face value then proceeds to brighten their highlights and deepen their depths. That they do the same with obscure pieces (the spirituals “Sometimes I Feel like a Moanin’ Dove” and “Ride On, King Jesus,” William Byrd’s “I Will Not Leave You Comfortless”) makes the overall effect as educational as it is edifying.
Two of the year’s best Christmas albums are not Christmas albums per se. Arianna Savall and Petter Udland Johansen’s Hirundo Maris: Chants du Sud et du Nord (ECM) is an ethereally sung collection of 14 traditional Norwegian, Catalonian, and “Judeo-Spanish/Sephardic/Ladino” songs, sparsely accompanied by percussion, double bass, dobro, mandolin, guitar, and two kinds of harp. The Kiev Chamber Choir’s Valentin Silvestrov: Sacred Works (ECM) pays a cappella homage to the ancient melodies of the Russian Orthodox liturgy—“traces,” according to the liner notes, “dissolving in the waters of eternity.”
But amid the eclecticism of their sources, both also include yuletide selections. Savall and Johansen’s are “El Noi de la Mare” (“Child of the Virgin”) and “Josep i Maria.” The Kiev Chamber Choir’s are “Silent Night” and “O Virgin Mother of God.” Each is characterized by such mystically intense beauty that surely anyone hearing them would, at the very least, consider the possibility of the Word becoming flesh.