Jeremy Lee writes
It’s almost Christmas, and I suppose most of you will be out and about searching for Christmas CDs to add an air of festivity to your home during dinner time or as a nice gift to a loved one. Well, instead of slogging through shelves of boring compilations arranged by unknown arrangers and performed by dubious bands and singers, why not treat yourself and/or others with
a wonderfully grand symphonic and choral album performed by none other than the esteemed Leonard Bernstein and his New York Philharmonic and sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir! Of course, it’s pretty safe to say that some of you will have owned this album already, at least in its very popular LP format, but those who haven’t, or who have thrown away their LPs, here’s your chance.
The program, unlike a large proportion of “classical” Christmas albums, is actually pretty orthodox: many ubiquitous carols grace the track list, such as O Come, All Ye Faithful, Carol of the Bells, Joy to the World, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Silent Night, though for balance some less familiar carols (at least to these ears in this part of the world) are also featured, for example Patapan, Lullay, My Liking and The Animal Carol. This being a “classical” album, selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker are included (review of the complete Nutcracker suite here) as well as Humperdinck’s “Children’s Prayer” from Hansel and Gretel, and of course a ridiculously slow and heavy-handed Hallelujah Chorus culled from Bernstein’s previous abridged 1956 Messiah.
As to the performances, they are uniformly excellent, needless to say, and they reveal Bernstein as a truly versatile conductor, comfortable and idiomatic in whatever genre, from Mahler to jazz to Christmas albums. It’s obvious that Bernstein is enjoying himself tremendously, and so is the enthusiastic-sounding New York Philharmonic which delivers playing of warmth and virtuosity. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, one of the premier American choirs, is second to none in terms of diction and intonation, and all the arrangements are refreshingly straightforward, tasteful and faithful to the original carols (no over-the-top recomposing here!).
At this point you’ll probably be asking why I won’t recommend other “classical” Christmas albums performed by other conductors, and my answer will be that none feel as idiomatic or just plain “right” as Bernstein. Karajan is too glossy and heavy-handed, while Ormandy sports strange arrangements, and so far only Davis’ out-of-print Christmas Carol album with the LSO matches Bernstein’s quality of playing and arrangements but not in terms of sheer panache (and the choir sounds diminutive). Sony offers state-of-the-art sonics. So don’t hesitate and treat yourself to a joyous classical Christmas with Bernstein. And of course, a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you!
- Album name: The Joy of Christmas
- Performers: Leonard Bernstein (conductor); New York Philharmonic; Mormon Tabernacle Choir; Westminster Choir [Hallelujah Chorus]
- Label: Sony SFK 63303
- Sonics: Stereo ADD
- Total playing time: 1:13:57