A Classical Christmas (CD reviews)

Here are two Christmas albums that are poles apart musically, instrumentally, and stylistically. Yet they’re both beautifully presented and remarkably entertaining.

Christmas Time Is Here
Canadian Brass. Steinway & Sons 30027.

Canadian Brass have been tooting their horns for over forty years, and it’s hard to argue with their enthusiastic and virtuosic musicianship. The membership changes occasionally, and with Christmas Time Is Here the lineup includes Eric Reed on horn, Christopher Coletti and Caleb Hudson on trumpets, Achilles Liarmakopoulos on trombone, and Chuck Daellenbach on tuba, with Bill Cahn, percussion. No matter who’s in the group, though, they always sound as though they’ve been performing together forever, they sound so well integrated.

This time out they give us their renditions of eighteen selections made famous in the Charlie Brown Christmas specials, mostly tunes by the late, great jazzman Vince Guaraldi as well as other, more-traditional numbers arranged by Brandon Ridenour. The thing is, the performers in the original cartoons played most of these songs on solo piano or in small, quiet ensembles. How would they translate as performed by a group of brass instruments? The answer: Pretty well.

Not that you won’t have to do a little getting used to them. Each of the numbers conveys a sweet, Charlie Brown Christmas mood, even if the brass players can't entirely communicate the same intimacy of the Vince Guaraldi Trio. There are limits on what their instruments can do. Nevertheless, if you enjoy Canadian Brass, you know they can handle just about any genre, and the album is fun. Look for familiar tunes like "Christmas Is Coming," "O Tannenbaum," "My Little Drum," "Christmas Time Is Here," "Fur Elise," "The Christmas Song," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Frosty the Snowman," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," and many more.

Steinway & Sons, ArkivMusic, and Opening Day Entertainment Group produced the album in 2013 at the Coalition Music Studio, Toronto, Canada. It’s good studio sound, clear and dynamic. There isn't a lot of air around the instruments, though, just a soft, warm glow on the notes. It's comfortable sound, just clean enough to catch and hold one’s attention without being actually in the audiophile category of ultimate transparency. It comes across quite real, though, natural, helping the instruments to appear pretty much as they probably would live.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

Joy to the World: An American Christmas
Harry Christophers, Handel and Haydn Society. CORO COR16117.

For those readers who may not know, the Handel and Haydn Society Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus have been around since 1815, the second-oldest musical organization in the U.S. and the country’s oldest continuously performing-arts organization. Harry Christophers has been the Music Director since 2009. They specialize in historically informed performances, and on Joy to the World: An American Christmas they present nineteen mostly traditional carols in as close to their original renditions as possible.

Mr. Christophers tells us his aim was to offer up a survey of some of the most-popular Christmas carols sung in the U.S. The choir certainly presents them in exemplary fashion, their enunciation, phrasing, and emotional range immaculate. What's more, a thoroughly enjoyable and informative set of booklet notes tells us everything we'd probably ever want to know about the origins of each of the songs.

Among the items included we find "I Wonder as I Wander," "O Magnum Mysterium," "Joy to the World," "A Christmas Carol," "O Little Town of Bethlehem" (in two versions), "In Dulci Jubilo," "Angels We Have Heard on High," "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," "Carol of the Bells," and many more.

The Sixteen Productions and CORO Records made the album at WGBH Classical New England Performance Studio, Boston, Massachusetts, in January 2012. Here we have what sounds like a pretty accurate account of real musicians in a real space. The light reflective conditions of the acoustic provide just the right amount of resonance to replicate a lifelike ambience. The voices remain smooth and warm, just as they would if listening to them in person, with no undue brightness or hardness. There is also a wide dynamic range involved, so the voices can swell from a softest whisper to a towering crescendo. Very nice all the way around.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa