Almost Christmas again--and, we know you, your problem is you haven't even begun to shop. Got it in one, eh? Yes, and now Cardullo's is closed (not that Aunt Edna liked those sticky Smyrna figs you palmed off on her last year, anyway), and Uncle Jack is much too busy at Leavitt and Peirce's to attend to your simple needs (Cousin Thelma wasn't at ali pleased with those personalized kitchen matches, you will remember). What, then, is to be done? Well, how about a record for once? We've heard 'em all, and if you'll sit very still, and promise not to fidget, we'll tell you what you want to hear.
Christmas: The Standard Repertoire
Sir Adrian Boult's Messiah, the one he recorded last year, is still attracting a lot of attention; but it's still not worth buying. Sir Adrian chose Miss Joan Sutherland as his soprano soloist, and it was a noble choice, but, unfortunately, Sir Adrian is a man who thinks that Miss Sutherland can only sing well when she is singing Puccini (a palpable falsehood). Consequently, Sir A. has ripped Handel's oratorio untimely from its century, making it as operatic Victorian as he possibly can. The result is an orchestra sprawling and unkempt, singers bawling and dyspeptic, and tempi crawling and inept. (London A-4357--you'll recognize the album by the ugly crucifix on its cover.)
The best Messiah now available is the newish Angel stereo recording conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent (Angel 3598 C). It's not up to the old mono recording--the Huddersfield Choral Society are worse than usual--but it's not unacceptable. The soloists' names are relatively unfamiliar in this country (with the possible exception of the tenor, Richard Lewis), but Sir Malcolm, unlike Sir Adrian, has used them to good advantage, restrained his extravagances, and produced a restrained, lyrical, and generally balanced Messiah.
Angel now also offers one of the best recordings of J.S. Bach's Magnificat in D (Angel 45027). Here, again is tenor Richard Lewis, and his Deposuit potentes de sede is one of the clearest and most satisfying interpretations of that aria: Geraint Jones conducts his own capable orchestra. On the same record is a performance of Henry Purcell's magnificent and rarely heard Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary (quite unseasonal, to be sure, but it is probably this fact of its co-billing that leads us to prefer Jones's recording). Her Malesty died from the smallpox on the fifth of March, 1695.
Christmas Of More Passing Interest
Harvard College figures in several recent Christmassy records. The renowned E. Power Biggs can be heard playing Twelve Noels by the eighteenth-century French composer, Louis Claude Daquin, on the reedy, mock-sixteenth-century Flentrop Organ in the Busch-Reisinger Museum of Germanic Culture (Columbia ML 5567). And the Harvard Glee Club has recorded on a loyal label a handsome election of the more worth while --Volume I (Cambridge Records CRS-401), for instance, includes Vaughan Williams arrangements of the Gloucestershire and Yorkshire Wassails, "Lo, How a Rose." Gustav Holst's Personent Hodie, the Sussex Carol and "The Holly and the Ivy." The Glee Club, recorded in Memorial Church, sings under the direction of G. Wallace Woodworth, and performs with its usual huency and competence.
The modern carols of Benjamin Britten have now been recorded for London (London 5634, or Stereo OS 2527) by the boy Choristers of Canterbury Cathedral, under the direction of Dr. Sidney Campbell. Personally, we are suckers for the voices of boy sopranos, and when, as here, they are echoed and enhanced by the vastness of Canterbury, they resound with great purity.
Even more pure and lovely, if possible are the voices of the Choristers of King's College, Cambridge, whose annual Christmas Eve service, A Festival of Lessons and Carols, London has also recorded (London 5523). This is the record our own Aunt Edna and Cousin Thelma will get, if we can bear to part with a single copy of it. The simple and elegant service (the lessons are read by a chorister, a choral scholar, three fellows, the dean, and the provost) and the remarkable and memorable carols (such as "Once in Royal David's City" and "Adam lay y-bounden") combine to make this record the best of the Christmas offerings.
That dwindling band of eighteenth-century gentlemen (that was once, in former years, the mainstay of this institution) will be cheered by the bracing news that it now has a Christmas record all to itself. Called An Eighteenth-Century Christmas, it's put out by Vanguard (Bach Guild BG-569) and includes Corelli's Christmas Concerto, Torelli's Pastoral Concerto for the Nativity, several pieces by J.S. Bach, and the Haydn Toy Symphony (by Leopold Mozart). I Soloisti di Zagreb are the instrumentalists (charmin' fellahs) and they are led by Antonio Janigro.
Finaly, there's the Play of Daniel, the twelfth-century, semi-secular, deml-liturgical Christmas drama from Beauvais. Noah Greenberg has recorded his acclaimed performance at the Cloisters; Russell Oberlin is a soloist (Decca DL-9402).
Well, enough. We've said our piece, and know, at least, exactly what we want. Hope we've been at all helpful. Best of luck. And Merry Christmas.