SO MANY Christmas records, so little space. Therefore, without further preamble, here we go, by category.
Bruch/Wolf: Christmas Cantatas -- Max Bruch, Salute to Christmas, Op. 62, and Flight Into Egypt, Op. 20; Hugo Wolf, Christnacht; soloists, Philharmonic Choir of Berlin, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Uwe Gronostay (Koch-Schwann 313 013). These three German choral works of the Christmas season are absolutely unknown in America, but are full-bloodedly romantic in expressiveness, with sinuous melodic lines, rich orchestration and ecstatic climaxes.
Gabriel Pierne: Les Enfants a Bethlehem (The Children at Bethlehem) -- soloists, Children's Chorus and Philharmonic Orchestra of Radio France conducted by Michel Lasserre de Rozel (Erato/MusiFrance 2292-45008). The lilting lyricism, innocent flavor and transparent orchestration of this absolutely enchanting 1907 Christmas narrative look forward to Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors," a mini-masterpiece waiting for discovery here. Our Heart's Joy: A Chanticleer Christmas -- Chanticleer, directed by Joseph Jennings (Chanticleer 8803). This exquisitely refined a cappella ensemble was a big hit here on the QRS Series. The CD contains some of the selections which were so successful, including the little-known "Ave Maria" by Franz Biebl and the Medley of Christmas Spirituals.
Christmas With the Pops -- choruses, bell choir, Rosemary Clooney, Sherrill Milnes, Doc Severinsen, Toni Tennille, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conducted by Erich Kunzel (Telarc 80226). Tasteful, robust settings of a wide range of traditional music played with flair and recorded with Telarc's state-of-the-art presence.
On Christmas Day -- The American Boychoir, Cathedral Symphony Orchestra, New York Vocal Consort, conducted by James Litton (Rykodisc 30129). A mix of traditional carols and carol-anthems, sung with great purity, breadth of sonority, yet sometimes with a distant quality.
Joy to the World -- the Roger Wagner Chorale and Orchestra (Capitol 94688). This main-line collection running from "Silent Night" to the "Coventry Carol" has been a favorite on LP since 1956. The CD sound is improved and the arrangements hold up spectacularly well.
The Song -- The Heart of Christmas -- Star-Scape Singers conducted by Kenneth G. Mills (Sun-Scape KGOD28). This Toronto group's carol selection is conventional, but the arrangements are wildly adventurous, including extreme chromaticism and close dissonance, but over the long pull there seems an edge of glitz and a striving for effect which makes the listening go better if you take only a few bands at a time.
Gifts III: Christmas Music from Around the World -- Joemy Wilson, hammered dulcimer with guitar, flute, violin and Celtic harp (Dargason 108). Some known, most unfamiliar, these 24 folk Christmas melodies are enlivened by the cheery twang of the hammered dulcimer and its equally dulcet companions. Enchanting.
Star Song: Christmas Carols With Panflute and Violin -- Valeriu Apan, panflute, Miamon Miller, violin, with harp, cello and cimbalom (Dargason 109). A main-line selection of carols in offbeat instrumentation featuring the lovely hollow panflute as lead voice.
Christmas: The Players (Rykodisc 20125). This one defies description, a 12-member instrumental ensemble playing more than 25 different instruments, predominantly guitars, folk instruments, harmonica, reeds and soft percussion, without any brass. The style is a mix of Renaissance ensemble, street corner band, hoe-down and Irish folk band, all propelled by an infectiously folksy swagger. Their "Ding, Dong, Merrily on High," has a haunting visionary quality.
Christmas With Maureen McGovern (CBS 45869). The extremely tasteful popular stylist McGovern, a children's choir and orchestra perform a mix of carols and winter music with an infectious conviction and high sense of style.
Christmas Kisses: Christmas Classics From Capitol's Early Years (Capitol 94701). Reissued hits from 1946 to 1963 featuring the likes of Jo Stafford, Nancy Wilson, Bing Crosby, Tex Ritter and Yogi Yorgeson (remember "I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas"?). A nostaglic trip for those 45 or older.
A Drummer Boy's Christmas -- Eric Darken (Diadem 90113-119). A mongrel collection featuring "drum programming" by Darken, whose one-dimensional notion of music embraces nothing but upbeat rhythm. Unless you love those inflexible drum machines, avoid this CD.
Merry Christmas: Jackie Gleason -- the Jackie Gleason Orchestra (Capitol 94686). Another updated reissue of 1956 recordings, all by Gleason's large orchestra, lush, warm and at slower tempos than you'd ever expect. "Fireside music" is a fair description.
Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho! -- Lou Rawls (Capitol 94703). Reissue of 1967 up-tempo seasonal songs and some originals by Lou, all with the soulful Rawls' easy-floating upper register, dipping suddenly into the honking sax timbre of his deep baritone range.
For Christmas This Year -- The Lettermen (Capitol 94687). The Lettermen's suave harmonizations go down very easily but have a tendency to make even the more serious Christmas songs like "O Holy Night" sound lightweight and almost trivial. Warning! This CD runs only a shamefully short 30 minutes, 28 seconds. From the Creative World of Stan Kenton Comes . . . A Merry Christmas -- Stan Kenton Orchestra (Capitol 94451). The sonority of Kenton's big 1961 brass band and his bold arrangements give this main line collection of favorite carols a lot of bite, color and depth.
Swing Ye Noel -- The Ritz-Carlton Orchestra directed by William Noll (Newport Classics 85501). These arrangements are somewhat in the Kenton mold, but without quite the teeth. One title, "Yo Hark! Those Angels Swing," tips this production's cutesy hand.
A Shiny New Christmas -- The Caroling Party (Best 722). These are slick arrangements ranging from early rock 'n' roll style to close harmony reminiscent of the old Hi-Los. Middle of the road commercial stuff, quite well-done.
A Starlit Christmas -- soprano Janey Clewer and orchestra (MCA 10066). Eleven brand-new songs mixing fireside hugging and snowmen with traditional Christmas thoughts. Well-sung sentimental pop stuff.