A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Dec 17, 2013
01:52 PM
Classically Speaking

Filling the Stockings with Christmas Chestnuts and Holiday Rarities


The Opus Arte release of "The Nutcracker"

There is never a shortage of exquisite holiday gifts for the classical music lover on your list. Here’s a sampling of some notable entries that caught my ear and captivated my eyes (or both!). All of the reviewed items are available from Naxos.

The Opus Arte label has taken care of which Tchaikovsky ballets to keep on my shelf. All three of his major scores in the genre have been released on Blu-Ray and DVD, recorded at the Royal Opera House. Swan Lake and The Nutcracker date from 2009, the former a re-mounting of the 1987 Anthony Dowell production, The Nutcracker produced by Peter Wright, originally in 1984. Along with a 2006 capturing of The Sleeping Beauty (and this a vintage revival of the 1946 staging), we’re treated to pristine visuals of the vaunted corps de ballet, and star turns by the likes of Marianela Nuñez. Gorgeous playing and interesting bonus features make this a can’t-miss addition to anyone’s collection.

And if you know anyone whose enjoyment of ballet starts and stops with The Nutcracker, you can pair that same Royal Ballet performance in another Opus Arte boxed set, this one adding an opera frequently considered appropriate to the season, Humperdinck’s  Hansel and Gretel. With Sir Colin Davis conducting, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier lend stage direction that is full of non-cliched solutions to many familiar moments. Recorded at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden in December 2008, this is a performance that any opera lover would enjoy any time of the year.

Baroque fans who want to get a pretty accurate glimpse of how the Bach family celebrated this time of year can turn to a Rondeau DVD, “Christmas with Johann Sebastian Bach.” Featuring three cantatas, BWV 61, 63 and 248, the Knabenchor Hannover delivers clear and joyous singing at the Marktkirche in Hannover. Jörg Breiding’s conducting nails both the jaunty energy and introspective moments, with the Barockorchester L’Arco bringing original instrument sounds to compelling life. The performances were recorded last December, and the works are contained on a single disc.

Two CD releases bring Christmas music well off the traditional (or at least familiar) path. The two-disc “Christmas Throughout the Centuries” on the Ars Musici label begins with chant from the fourth century, and journeys into the mid-twentieth century. Many of the selections are performed by the Camerata Vocale Freiburg (from Madison’s German sister city). There are some familiar names, including a little Bach and Mendelssohn, but nearly all of it was new to me. The second disc is full of surprises that will immediately capture the listener—and since it’s unfamiliar, you can play it in July without feeling anachronistic!

A final surprise was “Christmas in the Vatican” from the Acanta label. This CD is a reissue of performances originally recorded in the Sistine Chapel, no less, in 1973. Most of the music dates from the sixteenth century, with some transcendent music from Palestrina, and the instrumental “Christmas Concerto” of Corelli. The Coro della Cappella Sistina (the resident group of singers in the Sistine Chapel) are directed by Domenico Bartolucci, whose own “Christus natus est” closes the program.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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