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Tis the season to be jolly...or so we thought

Collection Musique Sacrée
Philips Classics

It's ridiculous that for the Christmas season -- a supposedly joyous period of the year when most people are bent on merrymaking and fine food -- record companies inundate the market with some of the saddest music ever written. This year's killjoy is Philips Classics with a 20 CD collection entitled "Musique sacrée". Gloomy old Philips with its party-pooping Masses for the Dead, Passions, Stabat Maters and various Te Deums. Moreover, not all of these reissues are important recordings and some are but extracts of a complete work. Still, if this particular brand of Yuletide culture does not take the sparkle out of your champagne, several in this series are, in fact, world-class interpretations, notably Vol 5, Brahms' German Requiem featuring Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic; Vol. 17 Schubert's Mass, D 950 with Wolfgang Sawallisch at the head of the Dresden Staatskapelle; the much-debated Verdi Requiem with Price, Elias, Björling, Tozzi, and the Vienna Philharmonic under Fritz Reiner. If extracts are not a problem, the late Eugen Jochum directing Haefliger, Berry, Giebel, Höffgen, Crass and the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam in Bach's Saint Matthew Passion is an excellent introduction to this great masterpiece.

Bach : Sonates & Partitas pour violon seul ; Suites pour violoncelle seul ; Petit Livre d'Anna-Magdalena Bach

Johanna Martzy, violin
Janos Starker, cello
EMI 7243 4 89179 28 (5CDs) Mono/Stereo

Five CDs for the price of one! But don't let the price put you off. These are excellent performances, notably Roumanian violinist Johanna Martzy's (1924 - 1979) interpretations of Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin (1954-1955). Add to that Janos Starker's first recording of the Bach cello suites (1957-1959), and you have the ideal stocking-stuffer.

Bach : Christmas cantatas BWV 122, 110 & 57

Vasiljka Jezovsek, Sarah Connolly, Mark Padmore, Peter Kooy,
Collegium Vocale
Philippe Herreweghe, conductor
harmonia mundi HMC 901594

With the Collegium Vocale of Ghent, Philippe Herreweghe has at hand one of the finest German baroque music performance groups in Europe. The Belgian conductor brings to these three Christmas cantatas a fascinating mixture of fervour and contemplation.

Christmas In Venice

The Monteverdi Choir
The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Decca 436 285-2

Christmas in early 17th cenutry Venice was a brilliant and splendid affair where multiple choirs of voices and instruments, including brass ensembles, contributed to the colourful religious festivities in and around St Mark's. John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble take you there.

In the Spirit: Jessye Norman
Philips 454 98562

Philips has decided to give Jessye Norman another shot at the Christmas market with a disc entitled "In the Spirit", where she is surrounded by the American Boychoir, the St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, the Riverside Choir, the St. Barnabas Choir and the Orchestra of St. Luke's, all under the direction of none less than David Robertson, musical director of the IRCAM in Paris, the fief of Pierre Boulez. The disc smacks of commercialism, Jessye Norman singing sometimes around the note, her voice distinctly in microphone mode and resolutely refusing to blend with the surrounding forces.

Christmas with Ramon Vargas
Claves CD 50-9612
Claves has decided to enter this market with a recording made at a concert last December featuring the Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas in a heteroclite programme ranging from Handel's "Largo" through Adolphe Adam, César Franck, Bizet, Bach/Gounod up to "Silent Night". The tenor takes his time warming up, but he can hardly have felt inspired by the tinkly accompaniments provided by Paul Angerer, also conductor of the Concilium Musicum Wien. The Lucerne Boys Choir is also prominently featured.

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