XMAS V: A Classical Christmas...L'Arte Del Mondo, Phoenix Chorale, Clare College Choir, Capella Romana, The Sixteen
...In dulci jubilo. Classical music always provides a legion of new and old holiday music. This is a year for premiers for both newly composed music and newly discovered old music. Present is music of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. And then, there is always Handel's Messiah.
L'Arte Del Mondo
Assisi Christmas Cantatas
No less than six of the seven compositions collected on Assisi Christmas Cantatas receive their premiere on this recording. Add to this the fact that this music is High Baroque, composed between 1639 and 1768, and the holiday thrill is that much greater. Add to this that the sole non-premiering piece is Archangelo Corelli's Concerto Grosso, Opus 6, No. 8 Fatto per la notte di natale, his famous "Christmas Concerto" added as a teaser, and this collection has all of the trappings of...well...a Christmas party.
Four of the seven pieces were composed by Franciscan clerics, a fact that gives credence to the title of the disc. The Franciscans were a religious order founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209. The Franciscans were devoted to living life a closely as Jesus had during his life. Music is a central part of the Franciscan way of life. The style is decidedly Italian Baroque that will surprise no one. The quality of the composition is quite excellent, particularly the vocal pieces. That we have the premiere of these pieces 200 and 300 years after their composition is musical gravy for jaded travelers.
We must be grateful for the discovery of aged music that has its place in history and can be well performed by the necessary professionals. The Assisi Christmas Cantatas offers extraordinary performances with superb sonics and expansive sound. The Franciscans were a creative and pious lot who wanted to do nothing more than worship. This disc succeeds well in that respect.
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Phoenix Chorale, Charles Bruffy
Spotless Rose: Hymns to the Virgin Mary
Marian compositions are always in fashion during the Christmas season. Spotless Rose: Hymns to the Virgin Mary is a collection of mostly 20th century pieces composed for a cappella choir. The most notable composer presented is Benjamin Britten, whose "Hymn to the Virgin" is included. Britten's piece is a brief 2:41 minutes. However, the composer crams as much pathos into that short span of time as Mozart did in his "Ave Verum Corpus," K. 618. Britten uses a very mid-20th century Catholic setting for the piece, making the hymn warm and comfortable.
Fellow British composer Cecilia McDowall's "Three Latin Motets" take more chances, but not so recklessly as to derail the homage to the Blessed Mother. Herbert Howell's "A Spotless Rose" is similar to the Britten piece in its Catholic taste. The piece flows and spreads in sonarity, filling the space between one's ears with a blissful calm.
The collect sports two premieres, Javier Busto's "Two Marian Pieces" and Jean Belmont Ford's "Electa." Busto's compositions float weightless with a holy refinement that shimmers. Busto's sense of the dramatic is potent and effective. Ford's multi-part piece employs a single bass drum with chorus and soloists. It is the most modern sounding of the pieces and is compelling with an internal momentum that quietly propels the pieces. Spotless Rose: Hymns to the Virgin Mary is a most fine veneration of the Blessed Virgin in music.
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Clare College Choir, Cambridge, Timothy Brown
John Tavener Ex Maria Virgine
British composer John Tavener is the big daddy of modern choral composition, save for, perhaps, Arvo Part. Tavener is a deep musical mystic well versed in the Ikons and Kontakions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. A little history for perspective: in the 11th century, two large factions of the Christian church had a difference of opinion resulting in a non-heretical break in the Christian church into the Roman Catholic church, with its headquarters in Rome and the Eastern Orthodox church, with its headquarters shared among the Patriarchies of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. It is in the musical tradition of this latter church that John Tavener excels.
Ex Maria Virgine, was commissioned by Timothy Brown in 2005 and the Clare College Choir, Cambridge, who have recorded the selections for the present release. The 10-part piece focuses on the Blessed Virgin, honoring the "Eternal Feminine" as she is honored in Eastern Orthodoxy. Ex Maria Virgine is a difficult piece with flashes of great beauty. Tavener recasts "There is No Rose," "Ding dong Merrily on High" and "Rocking" in jarring fashion. This music is often dissonant and anxious, but relaxes in the final "Verbum Caro."