A Romantic Christmas

Stephanie McCallum (pianist)

ABC Classics 476 4689

This selection of piano music really can be heard at any time of the year, but pianist Stephanie McCallum has chosen a lovely anthology of music which is directly related to the Christmas theme, or would suit the festive season. Amongst the glitter and fake snow that comes with this special time of year, it is sometimes rare to be musically nourished (unless copious doses of fine English cathedral carol services suit you). For those who like instrumental works where words don’t clutter the aural experience, then this recording by one of Australia’s finest pianists will satisfy.

Egon Petri’s transcription of JS Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze sets a reverential tone, whilst Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite capture the joy and sparkle of this all-time favourite ballet.

Grainger’s fascination with folk songs has  produced another lovely transcription on Sussex Mummers’ Christmas Carol. The Pastoral by Dohnanyi has a simplicity even with its many florid elevated lines.

Chordal textures predominant in a humble way with Tchaikovsky’s A l’eglise and the Schumann and Liszt versions of Weihnachtslieder, leading into to the 12 movement Weihnachtbaum (Christmas Tree), which is more complex and ambitious as it takes the listener on a journey through familiar carols such as O Holy Night, The Shephers at the Manger, O Come, All Ye Faithful and other motifs where we hear Evening Bells, Carillon and treatments of nativity ideas.

Julian Yu’s Jangled Bells is delightful in the twist he takes on this perennial favourite.

McCallum’s playing has clarity and real joie de vivre, making this CD a real pleasure to hear. In this collection she has assembled some lesser performed pieces as well as transcriptions which are little treasures for the pianist.

The Top 20 Christmas Carols ABC Classics 480 4624

There is something comforting about singing Carols at Christmas time. It helps to remind us of the true message of the Christmas story. After surveying readers of Limelight magazine, ABC Classics has put together a quality disc of carols, in fact the top 20.

It should come as little surprise then, that Franz Gruber’s immortal carol, composed spontaneously in 1818 as a substitute work when a German church organ broke down, should come in as number one. Here sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and conducted by Stephen Cleobury, it is one of the highlights of this disc.

Other highlights are the very expressive account of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing  (Bach Choir with the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble), a really splendid O Come, All ye Faithful (sung by Trinity College Melbourne with the Australian Chamber Brass Ensemble providing an exciting introductory fanfare), and a glorious a capella Away in a Manger (Trinity College Melbourne).

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra comes out shining with its wondrous orchestral accompaniments to Shepherd’s Pipe Carol (sung by the Adelaide Girls Choir) and The Little Drummer Boy (with Sydney Children’s Choir and soloist Yvonne Kenny).

Most of the tracks are are dominated by Cantillation and the Sydney Philharmonia Motet Choir (William James’s Christmas Day, Carol of the Birds, The Silver Stars are in the Sky, and Joy to the World, In the Bleak Mid-Winter, Once in Royal David’s City, Veni, veni, Emmanuel, Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, The Angel Gabriel, and Ding! Dong! Merrily on High), but other contributions are by the Adelaide Girls’ Choir (O Holy Night), and The Brandenburg Choir (The First Nowell).

Good choral singing in such classically traditional carols makes this a worthy addition at Christmas for anyone’s stocking!