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Music Notes: a grab bag of holiday recordings

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The bouncy, jouncy, jingle-belling, present-selling, plastic Christmas clamor in every store and shopping mall (how does anyone work retail at this time of year and stay sane?) is one of the best reasons I know for ordering gifts from catalogs. But when it's carefully chosen and sparingly played, Christmas music can be one of the true joys of the season. Happily there's a lot of good Christmas music available, and a variety of fine Chicago choruses have made recordings for the holiday.

The two seasonal offerings by the William Ferris Chorale--Make We Joy and Christmas With the Chorale--both suffer from a certain unevenness in quality. Some of that is due to the hazards of live recording--that someone flats or sings with less beauty of tone--and some is probably due to the patchwork of recording dates and inevitable personnel changes over the years: Make We Joy was recorded between 1986 and 1990, while Christmas With the Chorale offers cuts from 1986 through last February. Both have a more explicitly religious slant than some of their competition, and both offer music not found anywhere else, including of course compositions by William Ferris. Although the performance is not quite perfect, Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria" on Christmas is a nifty piece of music that deserves a wider hearing, and Ferris's own setting of "Hail Mary" is lyrical and lovely, a fine addition to the literature. To order either album, call 325-2000.

Mixing mostly standard carols and polyphonic religious works with a performance of Benjamin Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols," Sing With Joy from the James Chorale demonstrates what a loss director James Rogner's recent death represents to Chicago music. "A Ceremony of Carols" is usually performed by trebles (boy sopranos), whose sound isn't pleasing to all ears. Sing With Joy's all-women version is a pleasant alternative; while still offering a pure sound, the richer voices give the music more depth. Their Middle English diction is pretty good, too (available at 561-2424).

I wanted to like the two recordings from the Lira Singers more than I did. Unfortunately, Polish Carols and Hymns, made in 1983, and A Polish-American Christmas, from 1990, contain numerous lapses in both intonation and taste and cannot, despite some interesting and pretty moments in each, be recommended to a general audience. But if you want to broaden your musical horizons eastward, A Polish-American Christmas is by far the better sung of the two. To order, call 539-4900.

For a sampling of eastern European carols, check out News of Great Joy, one of two Christmas-music recordings from His Majestie's Clerkes; it contains one Ukrainian, one Polish, and one Latvian carol, along with Spanish, French, English, and American songs. On this recording and their earlier In a Cold Winter's Night, the Clerkes offer an outstanding sampling of less-familiar pieces, anchored by the well loved (yes, they do "In dulci jubilo" and the "Sussex Carol," not to mention "Go Tell It on the Mountain"). Night includes a couple of fun numbers by the American composer William Billings and Hugo Distler's exquisite arrangement of "Lo, How a Rose." News includes three arrangements by Clerkes director Anne Heider and three lovely Renaissance motets, along with Ralph Vaughan Williams's version of the "Gloucestershire Wassail." Both belong on the shelf next to the King's College Choir and the Boston Camerata.

The Clerkes' newest recording is Hallelujah! Great Choruses from Handel's "Messiah". "This album was recorded in faithfulness to the original benefit performance of 1742," announces the cover copy; the disk uses 16 members of the Clerkes, as well as an original-instruments ensemble anchored by members of the Chicago Baroque Ensemble, conducted by Anne Heider. It's authentically and beautifully sung, with outstanding recording engineering, but I had the nagging feeling that there needed to be something more. It should either have been a complete, true-to-the-original Messiah recording, or it should have been "Great Choruses From Handel's Oratorios," with material from other works, such as Judas Maccabaeus and Solomon. Without the soloists (particularly where they lead into a chorus) the effect is jumpy and incomplete, and the lack of solos underlines that the Messiah isn't a Christmas work per se--it was intended for Eastertide consumption, and only the first six choruses (out of eighteen) belong to the Christmas section. CDs from His Majestie's Clerkes are available from many record stores.

Chant sells these days, and ensembles that have quietly labored in that particular musical vineyard for years are suddenly finding themselves popular. A last-minute entry in the Christmas-music field is Chants of Christmas Midnight by the Schola Cantorum of Saint Peter's Church in the Loop. According to director J. Michael Thompson's liner notes, "The chant on this recording is a variant of Gregorian chant sung by the Norbertine canons. . . . All of the music, whether chant or polyphony, comes from the lowlands of Europe, giving the recording a sense of unity and place." Leaving aside the question of just what a Norbertine canon might be, this is a gorgeous recording of luminous music from the 16th century, sung by a four-part choir whose members are clearly at home in this style. Those who are already interested in chant will find this a handsome addition to their collections (there shouldn't be any overlap, since only one piece on this disk has been recorded before). Those who have resisted until now might find this an interesting first taste; the women's voices make it more than a run-of-the-mill no-girls-allowed chant recording, and the selections of polyphony spice up the pure chant. Chants of Christmas Midnight is distributed by Polygram, which means it should be widely available.

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