Thursday, December 08, 2016

Luther's Christmas Carols -- Serene sounds of the season

To me, renaissance Christmas carols have a certain serenity about them. Perhaps it's the softness of the instruments, such as the lute, recorder, and virginal. All I know is that in a season where emotions are often whipped up to a fever pitch, they help me stay centered much better than "Frosty" or even "Joy to the World."

Martin Luther understood the importance of music in worship, and his Christmas hymns are still sung today.

This collection takes five hymns Luther wrote for Weihnachten (Christmas) and presents them with various settings. Luther's melodies are simple and durable but at the same time malleable enough for all kinds of treatments.

Included are a number of dance arrangements by Michael Praetorius, polyphonic settings for organ by Martin Agricola and others, even arrangements for lute and voice.

All the arrangements are short (only a few pass the 2-minute mark), and the album groups them together by the Luther hymn they set. The seemingly endless permutations of these melodies keep the program interesting. Treatments and instrumental/vocal combinations change almost every track. While I was familiar with some of these works (especially Praetorius), there were some pleasant surprises along the way from the more obscure composers.

Simone Eckert and the Hamburger Ratsmusik play in a simple, straightforward style well-suited to the material. Sopranos Veronika Winter and Ina Sledlaczek sing with pure, unwavering tones. Tenor Jan Kobow's light delivery nicely balances the ensemble sound. When these voices blend, it's positively angelic.

This is a beautiful collection of Luther's music, presented through the arrangements of six generations of composers. I'll be enjoying this one repeatedly this holiday season.

Euch ist ein Kindlein heut geborn
Luthers Weihnachtslieder (Luther’s Christmas Carols)
Veronika Winter, soprano; Ina Siedlaczek, soprano; Jan Kobow, tenor
Hamburger Ratsmusik; Simone Eckert, director
Carus 83.390

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

James Whitbourn - Carolae refreshes old favorites

I usually don't like choral works that try to incorporate traditional Christmas carols. My issue is that the original tune usually sounds like it's been shoehorned into a setting without becoming a part of it.

Not so with James Whitbourn's "Missa Carolae." Yes, the recognizable tunes are there -- "Patapan," "God rest ye merry gentlemen," "In Dulci Jubilo" and so on -- and they're recognizable when they appear. But these carols are part of a larger musical tapestry.

Whitbourn takes his source material and blends it seamlessly together, letting his original contributions flow from the structures and motifs of the carols themselves. To my ears, it makes these overly-familiar carols sound fresh again.

That freshness extends to Whitbourn's original choral works, some of which are also included on this release. These are richly textured, robust works that should appeal to both the casual listener (as most parishioners are) or the classical devotee who wants music of substance and depth.

The Westminster Williamson Voices is a large choir, so there's a certain softness to their sound. But the ensemble has a warm, creamy blend that's well-suited to the music. And their articulation is virtually flawless.

I don't need yet another by-the-numbers setting of Christmas standards. When I auditioned "Carolae, Music for Christmas," I realized this was a disc I needed.

James Whitbourn: Carolae
Music for Christmas
Westminster Williamson Voices; James Jordan, director
Eric Rieger, tenor; Daryl Robinson, organ
Naxos 8.573715

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Death in Comics: Gil Thorp (part 2)

In June, 2016 readers of Gil Thorp saw high school student Boo Radley die in a tragic car accident (see Part 1). What I think was particualarly well done is how the creative team of Neil Rubin and Rod Whigham followed up that event.

They concentrated on the aftermath, showing the impact of Radley's death on her friends and family, and also the family of Barry Brader, whose father caused the wreck. Like real life, it's complicated and messy. Barry and Radley's boyfriend True STandish are on the Milford baseball team. And that affects the team itself. Radley was on the girl's baseball team. Gil Thorp coaches the boy's team, his wife the girl's. And -- considering the constraints of a daily narrative strip -- I think Rubin and Whigham realistically explored the impact such an event would have.

Sure, we call the daily comics the funnies, but they're not always so. Sometimes they aspire to be more -- and in the case of Boo Radley's death -- succeed.