You will be aware of three striking elements on this album, from the minute you press play.
The first is the quality of the performances. These are top-level musicians bringing their same superlative artistry to Christmas favorites that they do to a Schubert quartet or Taverner score.
The second is the sterling quality of the recording. If there is a sonic equivalent to sipping a hot toddy while curled up before a roaring fire, it is Sono Luminus’s peerless mixes and captures.
Third–and in every way as essential as the previous two–this is a kaleidoscopic collection of styles and interpretations of beloved songs and carols that keeps me eager for the next number. If you’re like me, four tracks into about any single artist’s Christmas album, I am ready to move on. With such a fetching variety of artists and approaches, I find myself going top-to-tail on this one.
Simplicity is an underrated avenue when it comes to holiday releases, so the entries by Irina Muresanu & Matei Varga, Bruce Levingston, Kathryn Bates, and Skylark Vocal Ensemble are a breath of proverbial fresh air. Muresanu’s seductive playing is a glimpse into the golden age of violin technique–lush vibrato and delicious sentimentality, which infuses “White Christmas” with every bit of nostalgia one could hope for.
One can imagine twirling 19th-century gowns in Levingston’s solo piano rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Christmas,” with frictionless phrasing that plays like freshly sharpened skates on virgin ice. Heading over to cellist Kathryn Bates’s reimagining of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” we are tucked into a bed of extravagant resonance, spinning arpeggios, and all the anticipation and delightful impatience of a child for whom morning cannot arrive soon enough.
And of course, Skylark. I’ve still got their devastatingly gorgeous album Crossing Over (DSL-92200) in regular rotation, and with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” this chamber choir presents an intoxicating wistfulness that will find the listener awaking to find herself gazing out an ice-encrusted window when the final notes fade
American Contemporary Music Ensemble
Cuarteto Latinoamericano & Lydia Lewis
Irina Muresanu & Matei Varga
Jasper String Quartet
Skylark Vocal Ensemble
Total time: 00:38:24
|Original Recording Format|
Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia
|Recording Type & Bit Rate||
|Release Date||October 26, 2017|
Santa Fe New Mexican
Remember those annual LPs the Firestone and Goodyear tire companies used to put out back in the 1960s, chockablock with Christmas favorites performed by stars that might range on a single record from Leontyne Price to Stan Getz? The Sono Luminus label has captured that retro spirit in this LP-length release (38 minutes) featuring a dozen excellent artists or ensembles from their roster.
No compilation of back-catalog material, this. Every track is newly conceived and recorded, most of them in imaginative arrangements that charm while defying expectations. The Ensemble Galilei, known for rousing Renaissance-music interpretations (often with Celtic inflections) offers its signature style — while playing “Frosty the Snowman.” The Jasper String Quartet assumes accents of Western swing in “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and the Cuarteto Latinoamericano sets aside its accustomed classics by Revueltas or Chávez for a lightly Latin take on “Joy to the World,” with percussionist Lydia Lewis.
Cellist Kathryn Bates, of the Del Sol String Quartet, offers a soulful, lingering rumination on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” dense in the sort of polyphony we expect from Bach’s Cello Suites, and violinist Irina Muresanu delivers a nostalgic rendition of “White Christmas” in Jascha Heifetz’s transcription. Skylark, a high-quality, professional chamber choir, also strikes a wistful posture in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and American Contemporary Music Ensemble blows your mind with a shimmering rethinking of “Silent Night,” as icy and nebulous as the aurora borealis.
An Earful – Best of Award
Christmas comes every year, in any case, and we’re always looking for something new to play amidst the Bing Crosby classics. When guests pile into your house for Wassail and you’re needing something whimsical that might satisfy everyone, try Imagine Christmas, in which artists from the Sono Luminus family put their own spin in familiar tunes, my favorite being ACME’s (yes) imaginative take on Silent Night, a most unexpected delight.
For the quiet moments before bed on Christmas Eve, there’s nothing better than Winter’s Night by the Skylark Vocal Ensemble, a truly glorious album of sublime choral music based around Hugo Distler’s seven variations of the hymn Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen. This is one you can play any time of year, especially when you find yourself exclaiming “Serenity now!”
Imagine Christmas is an aptly-titled new release by the Sono Luminus label guaranteed to stir anyone up and away from the numbing sameness that too much canned Christmas can cause.
I highly recommend that you settle into your favorite easy chair, preferably in your house robe, and sip a mug of hot cider or eggnog or mulled wine as you listen to this superb collection of musical chestnuts.
Listen to the lively foot-stomping Celtic sound that Ensemble Galilei gives Frosty the Snowman in the album’s opening track and you just might imagine yourself river dancing all the way down to the frozen pond where you used to ice skate as a kid. I dare you then not to waltz around the room in time to Bruce Levinston’s whirling rendition of December, a wintery Tchaikovsky waltz. After that, rest for a spell and reminisce about Christmases past thanks to Irina Muresanu and Matei Vargas heartfelt instrumental White Christmas.
Again, rise up and dance to the Jasper String Quartet’s joyous Holly, Jolly Christmas, and next imagine yourself Walking in the Air with the help of Bruce McFarlane’s rippling piano version. Next chuckle as you listen to Cory Hills’ all-American ‘Twas the night before Christmas, and then let Kathryn Bates remind you with her hauntingly beautiful cello playing of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town that you’re still a kid at heart.
Caleb Nei will gently remind you that Christmas Time is Here, and Lydia and the Cuarteto Latino Americano will rhythmically bring joy to your world from their Latin one with Joy to the World. Next, rest your feet but sharpen your ears as you listen to Stewart Goodyear’s humorously post-modern Good King Wenceslas. Then be moved by the flawlessly elegant singing of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by the Skylark Vocal Ensemble.
At the end of your musical journey, you will be mesmerized by the eerie stillness that the American Contemporary Music Ensemble brings to Silent Night. After that, drink the good health of the folks at Sono Luminus (www.sonoluminus.com) and buy yourself this one-of-a-kind musical treasure, or even better, make it the nicest ever Christmas gift to someone you love.
A wonderful collection of holiday tunes, re-imagined in new arrangements and performed by an intriguing group of musicians and ensembles.
Country songwriters Walter Rollins and Steve Nelson composed Frosty the Snowman in 1950. The song gets a rousing make-over by Ensemble Galilei, a band of musicians performing Celtic rhythms and harmonies with drums, violas, fiddles, and flutes. The classic White Christmas, written by Irving Berlin for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, is performed by the duet of violinist Irina Muresanu and pianist Matei Varga, with the piano providing an interesting tonal counterpoint to the lush violin melody. Percussion jazz artist Lydia Lewis is based in Winchester, Virginia. She joins the fabulous Cuarteto Latinoamericano string quartet in Joy to The World, adding a colorful multi-rhythmic dimension to the classic traditional tune.
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane and sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 musical Meet Me In St. Louis. The Skylark Vocal Ensemble is an outstanding group of singers from the greater Boston area who sing their own fabulous version of the song in four-part harmony. Toronto-born pianist Stewart Goodyear has performed with major orchestras around the world, and is well-known for his Beethoven Marathon, playing all 32 of Beethoven’s sonatas in a 10 hour period. His version of Good King Wenceslas covers each end of the keyboard, with a low booming bassline, a repeating series of high trills, and a melody line that tries out every octave in between. Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town was written by Haven Gillespie and John Frederick Coots and first recorded in 1934. Cellist Kathryn Bates, who performs regularly with the San Francisco-based Del Sol Quartet, performs a vibrant and imaginative version that showcases her outstanding technical skills as a soloist.
Jazz pianist Caleb Nei is a native of Huntington, Indiana, and specializes in jazz, folk, and contemporary church music. He currently performs and teaches in Virginia. Caleb plays a melancholy version of Christmas Time Is Here, a tune written by Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson for the 1965 television special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Caleb adds his personal touch, re-imaging the song by inserting a jazzy verse of Oh, Christmas Tree. The American Contemporary Music Ensemble is a group of top New York musicians and has performed both at home and abroad since 2005. They play a haunting string version of Silent Night, with an unending bowed bass and cello section supporting a lightly plucked melody line. Pianist Bruce Levingston is one of the leading concert pianists in the world today and is based in New York City and Oxford, MS. He performs December: Christmas from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, Op. 37b, written in 1876. Bruce’s performance of the holiday number is classically precise, bright, and colorful.
The Jasper String Quartet, based in Philadelphia, performs a rich and lively string version of the classic A Holly Jolly Christmas, written in 1962 by talented songwriter Johnny Marks, who also penned Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. Master lutist and composer Ronn McFarlane was born in West Virginia and raised in Maryland. He travels and performs frequently in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Ronn performs a sensitive and poetic version of Walking in the Air, written by Howard Blake for the 1982 animated film The Snowman. Percussionist Cory Hills is a popular and creative musician based in Los Angeles and is well-known for his Percussive Storytelling programs for children. Cory performs his charming version of the 1823 poem ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, written by Clement Clarke Moore, and recites the poem while accompanying himself on bongos.
The sound quality is excellent. A 16-page booklet is included, with notes and commentary by Doyle Armbrust.
What Greg Says
Over nearly three decades of reviewing, I feel like I have almost heard it all when it comes to Christmas fare: more Messiahs, more Nutcrackers, and endless re-packagings of the tried-and-true…not to mention the better-off-left-alone.
Ah, but things brightened this year when one of the newer and more innovative labels around released “Imagine Christmas.” Sono Luminus has a short, but thoroughly impressive track record (pardon the pun), and based on their Christmas release, a wider stable of artists than I realized.
One listen to this all-too-brief disc (my only complaint) and one wonders why it wasn’t called “Re-Imagine Christmas.” Indeed, each of the track listings in the booklet state that the tune is “reimagined” by that artist. Never mind; by any name, “Imagine Christmas” is simply the most stimulating Christmas CD that I’ve heard in 20 years (I still have to plug one of my perennial favorites from the late 1990s, NPR’s “Christmas Around the Country II”).
The crew at Sono Luminus gives us a dozen unique takes on the sacred, secular, and plain off-the-beaten-path repertoire. The first category is represented by a lively “Joy to the World” from Cuarteto Latinoamericano and Lydia Lewis, and a favorite carol from a favorite performer among Madison music lovers, “Good King Wenceslas” from the gifted pianistic hands of Stewart Goodyear. The last traditional tune is the closer, an addictive, meditative “Silent Night” from the American Contemporary Music Ensemble.
A neglected classic, Tchaikovsky’s piano solo “December: Christmas,” is brought to fresh life by Bruce Levingston. Other familiar fare is Vince Guarardi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” (yes, from the Peanuts classic toon), played with just enough subtle newness by Caleb Nei, and a hold-your-breath Heifetz arrangement of “White Christmas,” reimagined by Irina Muresanu and Matei Varga. There’s more, but we must give a shout out to Cory Hills’ hint-of-rap, percussion laced traversal of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
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