The Whos down in Whoville had it right: The Christmas season calls out for music.
Classical music, in particular, has pride of place. People who never listen to classical music any other time crave it this time of year. Who doesn't love an operatic "O Holy Night"? Or the pure sound of a choir boy? The music doesn't even have to be distinctly Christmas. Festive Baroque music, the pristine sound of a piano or a classical guitar, even the glittering texture of a tango speak of festivities, good fellowship, and good cheer.
If you're looking for stocking stuffers, or would like to treat yourself, here are some sparkling new CDs that fit the bill.
1. The Buffalo Philharmonic's "Sounds of the Season" (Beau Fleuve). The BPO’s first holiday disc, released on the orchestra's private label, was recorded at the 2015 Classical Christmas concert. Among its 18 tracks is "Winter," from Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," featuring BPO Concertmaster Dennis Kim. BPO saxophonist Sal Andolina is also in the spotlight. The concert was one to remember. It drew a huge crowd. The orchestra shone. Kim exhibited delicate playing in the "Four Seasons" excerpt, which includes one of Vivaldi's most enchanting melodies. Sal Andolina, whom Falletta describes aptly as another of the orchestra’s superstars, plays "I'll Be Home For Christmas" with a laid-back warmth. The ending was soaring.
Sweet as a sugarplum, to be able to relive all this. Find the album on the BPO's website, or call 885-5000.
2. J.J. Wright, "O Emmanuel" (Dynamic Catholic). This album by a Buffalo native debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Albums chart - impressive for an album that combines Gregorian chant and jazz piano. J.J. Wright is the son of Jim and Joanne Wright, co-founders of 101.7 FM WLOF, Buffalo's Catholic radio station. He holds a master's degree in sacred music from the University of Notre Dame and is currently working on his doctorate. For the 2016-2017 academic year, he is studying at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome, where he interns with the Sistine Chapel Choir.
Part of the appeal of "O Emmanuel" is its diverse cast. Wright is joined in his offbeat endeavor by the Notre Dame Children’s Choir as well as adult vocal soloists, and instrumentalists of Fifth House Ensemble It's a freewheeling mix of Advent hymns (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Gabriel’s Message”) and Christmas hymns (“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “Hodie Christus natus est”). There are also originals, inspired by ancient scriptures, with a kind of world music feel. A good pick for the adventurous Christian on your list.
3. "Aksel! Arias by Bach, Handel and Mozart," by Aksel Rykkvin, treble (Signum Classics). The twist here is that the singer is a boy soprano. The sound has a timeless purity -- think of all those Lessons and Carols that start out with a choir boy singing "Once in Royal David's City." Rykkvin, born in Norway in 2003, has had extensive classical training and navigates treacherously demanding vocal passages with ease. He is a wonder to hear.
On this disc, accompanied by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, he sings almost 20 arias. Among them are Bach's "Mein Glaubiges Herze" and "Ich folge dir gleichsfalls," arias so joyous and bouncy that I loved them even as a teenager. Other highlights include the sublime "Bist du bei Mir," from Bach's Anna Magdalena Notebook; Handel's "Let the Bright Seraphim"; and Mozart's famous "Alleluia," which ends the disc on a particularly angelic note. So many of these arias are like exclamations of joy. This is a great disc for Christmas, or anytime.
4. "Leyendas," Thibaut Garcia (Erato). A Frenchman with Spanish blood -- that would be Thibaut Garcia, a 24-year-old classical guitar virtuoso. Of this album he said: "I wanted to show the guitar in its full glory. These legendary works are so close to my heart because they are part of my life and my travels.”
"Leyandas" means legends, and the disc includes so many lovely guitar pieces, by Albeniz, de Falla, Rodrigo and Piazzolla. Western New Yorkers are learning to love this music thanks to our local guitar stars, who include JoAnn Falletta, the Castellani/Andriaccio Guitar Duo, and Jason Vieaux, who grew up here and is now internationally acclaimed. If you're new to classical guitar, Garcia emphasizes that this is the music that made him love it. It can do the same for anyone.
5. "Tango Nuevo," Pablo Ziegler and Christopher O'Riley (Steinway & Sons). We know O'Riley, the host of NPR's "From the Top"; and an interesting pianist who plays everything from Rachmaninoff to Radiohead. He has been here several times, taping his show. O'Riley likes his off-roading and here he and Ziegler explore 13 two-piano pieces with a Latin flair.
As for Ziegler, he might not be a household name, but he looms large in this setting, thanks to his collaborations with tango master Astor Piazzolla. All this disc is of the repertoire they created -- atmospheric, bittersweet tango melodies. The two christened this music "Tango Nuovo" and it still has a feeling of newness. The disc ends with Piazzolla's famous "Libertango." These two pianists are good together, with flawless synchronicity and an appealing elasticity and freedom.
6. "Notte Magica," Il Volo with Placido Domingo (Sony Music Masterworks). Domingo and Il Volo have been performing with each other off and on for some time, and neither needs an introduction around here. Il Volo packed Kleinhans Music Hall earlier this year. They have that seductive Three Tenors thing going on, a mix of classical and pop. Domingo doesn't get as big a workout here as he does singing Wagner. But it's all good over-the-top fun, as they romp through a crossover set of 22 songs starting with "Nessun Dorma" and ending with "Adeste Fideles."
7. "The Ghosts of Christmas Eve," the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Atlantic). You knew this was coming -- this year's compilation by the world's favorite Christmas metal-heads. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra, who have already paid their visit to Buffalo for this holiday season, puts its own good-natured, folkloric spin on Christmas and Christmas music. This set reflects that, with traditional numbers rubbing shoulders with more out-there numbers including "Music Box Blues" and "Promises to Keep." The perfect gift for the TSO fans in your life, and they are legion.
8. "Mozart 225" (Deutsche Grammophon). I have not personally received or heard this set. But it is the sleeper hit of the year -- the best-seller in any category, according to Billboard, meaning it beat out Beyoncé. Admittedly you have to take these numbers with a grain of salt -- most people don't buy their music on CD any more. Still, it's impressive. Count up the single CDs sold, and it numbers in the millions. This set is a triumph in more ways than one. Think of it: 15,000 minutes of music. Four thousand tracks. Six hundred solo artists and ensembles. Two hundred forty hours. Prices at Amazon began at $448. It's the ultimate gift for a Mozart fan, and who isn't a Mozart fan? If you want to be super-generous you can throw in two tickets for "Amadeus," being performed in January 2017 by the BPO and the Irish Classical Theatre.