5 Records You Should Own: Classical Holiday-Instrumental

By Rad Bennett

I like to write seasonal pieces. That way I can share with you some of my favorite music that enhances the enjoyment of a particular holiday, or season. Halloween was relatively easy, though I have tentative plans for a column with entirely different titles next year.  But the Christmas-New Year’s holiday season has given birth to thousands of albums, paying near endless homage to both the sublime and the ridiculous. After much pondering, I decided to narrow it down this year to instrumental recordings, saving the choral offerings for another time, another year. Instrumental, with me, encompasses both religious-spiritual and secular discs. A few of these might be hard to find but they are worth the search. 

5 records analog audioTchaikovskyThe Nutcrackerl’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; Ernest Ansermet, conductor. Decca LP and CD, Speakers Corner LP

Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet was not a success at its 1892 St. Petersburg premiere, but over time it has been recognized as one of the composer’s greatest masterpieces. In America, it was first performed in its complete version by the San Francisco Ballet in 1944 and the New York City Ballet, using George Balanchine’s staging, in 1954. Both companies have since made it an annual presentation and its popularity has swept America so that virtually every town, large or tiny, has its own production, usually in cooperation with a local ballet school. 

Recordings have risen over the years to an enormous number. There was a pioneer mono recording by Antal Doráti and the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra) followed by two early stereo recordings led by Ernest Ansermet and Artur Rodzinski. Since that time, recordings have escalated so that every record label has one, or more recordings in its catalog. Of course there are even more recordings of the suite that Tchaikovsky fashioned from the complete ballet, but if you opt for that, you’re cheating yourself from hearing some of the most glorious music found only in the complete ballet. 

I will always have good things to say about the versions by Robert Irving, Rodzinski, Andre PrevinRozhdestvensky, and Doráti; but it is the 1959 stereo recording conducted by Ernest Ansermet that strikes me as the warmest and most magical. The reading is lyrical in a positive way and the recording, using the Decca tree technique, quite remarkable. Obviously others think so, as it has been re-released and re-mastered many times. Speakers Corner, the go-to company for impressive vinyl pressings has it in their catalog, but if you can find the original London/Decca pressings, those were among the best of the early FFSS (full frequency stereo sound) recordings. Be careful when seeking out CDs. There are a few that look like they are of the full ballet, but are actually truncated. The good CD copies take more than one disc. The vinyl also should contain two LPs. 

Alternate Takes: Complete Ballet: Artur Rodzinski, Royal Philharmonic (Westminster LP, DG CD); Antal Doráti, Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips LP and CD). Suite: Zubin Mehta, Israel Philharmonic (Decca LP and CD), Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA LP and CD). Note: the Reiner contains more music than the usual suite, less than the complete ballet.

Further Explorations: Symphony No. 2 “Little Russian(PrevinMarkeitch), Sleeping Beauty. Swan Lake(AnsermetRozhdestvensky)

Final note: I’ve opted for the London cover, preferring it to the Decca one. 

Britten Men of Good WillBrittenMen of Good WillThe Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; Four Sea Interludes. Minnesota Orchestra, Sir Neville Marriner, conductor. EMI vinyl and CD.

Neville Marriner was music director of the Minnesota Orchestra from 1979-1986 and unlike other maestros signed no exclusive contract with any particular record label. With the Minnesota Orchestra he recorded for EMI, CBS/Sony, Philips, Vox, and Nonesuch. For EMI, he recorded a Britten collection and a Copland collection. The Britten disc includes a real charmer for the holiday season, Men of Goodwill, written in 1947 when the composer was 34 years old. It is a set of bustling, superbly orchestrated variations on “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” Marriner gives the work a grand reading and the virtuoso Minnesota musicians shine from beginning to end. It’s a trifle in Britten’s lexicon, perhaps, but a delightful seasonal piece that I visit each and every year. The other works on the disc are recognized masterpieces and receive sturdy, lyrical, and majestic readings. The recorded sound is top-drawer. If you’re seeking an LP, try to get an imported EMI. 

Alternate Takes: None really, there is a recording with Paul Goodwin and the SWR Orchestra of Germany but it is not in the same class. 

Further Explorations: Matinées Musicales and Soirées Musicales, The Prince of the Pagodas (various orchestras, Britten, conducting; Musicales – London Phiharmonic, Sir Adrian Boult)

 An 18th Century Christmas JanigroAn 18th Century ChristmasI Solisti di Zagreb, Antonio Janigro, conductor. Vanguard LP & CD.

The Christmas music of Corelli, Torelli, and their Baroque period peers are found on countless recordings now, ranging all the way from authentic Baroque (Christopher Hogwood) to slightly gooey Romantic (Herbert van Karajan). But it was this Janigro recording that started the ball rolling and to my mind is still the best. The program includes Corelli’s Concerto Gross, Op. 6, No. 8; Torelli’s Concerto Grosso, Op 8, No. 6 “Pastoral Concerto for the Nativity”; three Bach Chorales arranged by M. Kelemen; and Leopold Mozart’s “Toy Symphony.” The Corelli, Torelli, and Bach are played with lyrical passion, including very interesting continuo work from the harpsichordist. The “Toy Symphony” was once attributed to Haydn but now scholars have found that it is part of a larger work by Leopold Mozart. That said, its use of toy instruments – drums, trumpet, cuckoo, nightingale, and ratchet – makes for delightful fare and Janigro revels in all its humor, while the engineers have a field day at making each instrument sound just right. The LP and most CDs have the cover I’ve used here but on CD the program was also released with a different cover and re-titled as An 18th Century Christmas Concert.

Alternate Takes: Christmas Concertos; Christopher HogwoodThe Ancient Academy of Music (L’Oiseau-Lyre LP and CD); Christmas Concertos; Il Giardino Armonico(Teldec/Warner CD)

Futher Explorations: Corelli: Concerti Grossi, Op. 8, Nos. 1-12: Fabio BiondiEuropa Galante (Alliance/Naieve CD); Neville Marriner, Academy of Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields (Argo and Decca LP and CD) 

 Sleigh Ride AndersonSleigh Ride & Other Holiday FavoritesBBC Concert Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin, conductor. (Naxos CD) 

Culled from other releases in Slatkin’s series devoted to the music of Leroy Anderson, this disc assembles almost all of Anderson’s delightful arrangements and compositions pertinent to the season. The familiar pieces are there (Sleigh RideA Christmas Festival, and Bugler’s Holiday) alongside underplayed gems (Horse and BuggySuite of Carols (versions for brass, woodwinds, and strings, and The Waltzing Cat. All are played with charm and good humor by the British musicians, taking their cue from their American conductor. After all, the Brits have a much larger catalog of light music than we do so are thoroughly imbued with its subtleties. The recorded sound is spectacular, very detailed with welcome presence yet not devoid of warmth. 

A personal aside: A Christmas Festival is possibly the most oft played holiday title by amateur organizations and exists in slightly different versions for orchestra and band. I remember the thrill I got as a 16-year old kid playing clarinet in my high school band when we tackled that piece. To play that Anderson piece was a challenge but it was not work as it had such a joyous outcome. It was one of the pieces and experiences that planted music so firmly in my psyche that I could not exist without it. I listen to it every year. 

Alternate Takes: Really no exact one. You can find A Christmas Festival and Sleigh Ride in iconic performances by Frederick Fennell on Mercury, but the Naxos program is the only one to collect so much of Anderson’s music in one place. 

Further Explorations: Music of Leroy Anderson(BBC Concert Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin, conductor, Vols. 1-5Naxos CD), various music on collections conducted by Frederick Fennell (Mercury), Maurice Abravanel(Vanguard), and Anderson himself (American Decca, MCA). 

 Vienna CarnivalVienna Carnival. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Willi Boskovsky, conductor (Decca/London LP, downloads, CDs, and audio DVDs from High Definition Tape Transfers

Vienna celebrates New Year’s with a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by various guest maestros. Vienna Carnival is not a chronicle of one of those lavish events, but the studio recording is, I think, the best one of the partnership between the orchestra and its concertmaster/conductor, Willi BoskovskyFor one thing the program is so very appealing, revealing delight after delight. It begins with the fiery Eljen a Magyra! Polka, the second cut being the lovely waltz: Sphärenklängen. It then alternates along the same lines, a fast polka or gallop followed by a waltz. The famous Unter Donner Und Blitzpolka is here as is the lesser known Bantiden galop.

These recordings have been cycled many, many times in various Decca/London collections and anything with Boskovky and the Vienna Philharmonic is worth hearing. But this original collection has a balance and shape that is positively 100% satisfying. The LP was a very good London pressing (presumably the Decca was, too) and can be found at relatively low cost. There is no official Decca CD, but the enterprising Bob Wittrak has transferred a London reel to reel tape for his HDTT site and offers the program via download or several physical mediums. 

Later in life, Boskovsky made recordings for EMI with a different Vienese orchestra and one of those is called Carnival in Vienna. It’s very good but not to be confused with this program which is exemplary – performance and sound. 

Alternate Takes: Any of Decca’s Boskovky Vienna Philharmonic collections.

Further Explorations: The various live New Year’s concerts, led by various conductors and found on various labels, including DG, Philips, Decca, and Sony. The DG, led by Herbert von Karajan, has some lovely singing from Kathleen Battle.