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December 15, 2010

Some new Christmas albums worth a listen

Most years, I just can't bring myself to check out the latest batch of Christmas albums. Don't get me wrong -- I have a soft spot for Christmas music, but, really, how many holiday recordings can you have?

Me, I only need one, Streisand's first from the mid-1960s (there are some great gems on her more recent follow-up, but the first one will always be my favorite). But I thought I'd try out some of the CDs that have been stacking up this fall and see how they, well, stack up.

I'll start with a homegrown release: "Christmas at America's First Cathedral" by our very own Baltimore Choral Arts Society (Gothic Records). This is a souvenir of the 2009 concert at the Baltimore Basilica and comes complete with a DVD of the event. The recording, which captures the warm, reverberant acoustics of that historic space beautifully, offers a program that is generous in providing fresh material.

The imaginative and instantly appealing new works by Rosephayne Powell and James Lee III provide welcome additions to Christmas repertoire. And it's refreshing to have some less obvious, season-appropriate selections by

Handel (his other great "Hallelujah" Chorus, from "Judas Maccabeus") and Mendelssohn ("Rise Up" from "St. Paul" makes a cool curtain-raiser).

The chorus and orchestra, led by Tom Hall, sound admirably vibrant. So does soprano soloist Janice Chandler-Eteme.

Another appealing release is "A String Quartet Christmas," a three-disc set from ArkivMusic that features excellent performers, including violinist Arturo Delmoni and cellist Nathaniel Rosen, and a huge chunk of holiday fare. These recordings were available separately in years past, but are gathered together now in a neat package. (I must have ignored them back then, in my usual, not-in-the-mood-for-Christmas-CDs manner, so I'm glad I listened this time.)

This is a perfect product for anyone wanting to bring it down a little -- in this case, a whole lot, really -- and focus purely on the melodic beauty inspired by Christmas Time.

The arrangements are sensitive, the playing really first-class. To vary the sonic flavor of a string quartet, there are occasional appearances of harp and organ (the player of the latter happens to be named Timothy Smith -- no relation).

There are two dozen or so carols and other items per disc, covering many centuries and mixing the well-known with the rare and surprising. Among the surprises is an arrangement for violin and organ of the haunting Adagio from Alessandro Marcello's Oboe Concerto, which, somehow, takes on a reverential, Christmas Eve-like feeling in this context.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:22 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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