Music: Christmas Musings

What should I get myself for Christmas? An immodest question, you may suppose, but my family and friends will not buy me classical music CDs as gifts. They think I already have “everything” or, in the case of family, “enough.” The former is the product of envy, the latter of a storage problem and the resentment it has generated. I am therefore thrown back on my own resources. If someone were willing to give me such a present, what would I suggest to them?, I ask myself. Then I go out and buy it. This requires a doppelganger kind of approach, but it seems to work because there it is on Christmas morning.

This year I struck early during a trip to London, where I met with Martin Anderson of Toccata Classics (“Toccata Classics,” November 2005). While there, I wandered into the HMV store on Oxford Street and spotted the Sony set of Mahler’s complete symphonies, with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. These are the recordings that put Mahler on the map. The £25 sale price translated to around $45, a great bargain for twelve CDs, and a good deal less than it costs in the States—the only thing in London you could say that about. So thinking myself a great Christmas shopper, I bagged it.

Why? I already have the Mahler set on old Columbia LPs issued in the early 1970s. I am not particularly driven by new technologies and have reached the age at which I terribly re-sent being required to learn something new in order to consume. However, I am not an antiquarian. Unlike records, CDs do not pop and click. A CD’s silent background allows complete con-centration on the music. From a sneak preview, I can tell you it was worth it. The sound on these classic recordings is astoundingly good in their new incarnation. If I were told they had been recorded yesterday, I would believe it.

That only leaves the problem of Mahler, or malheur, as Stravinsky called him. When I first heard these recordings more than 30 years ago, I was both excited and repelled by Mahler’s neurotic hysteria, a feature Bernstein was famous for emphasizing. Now, strange as it may seem, they sound, well, normal. That may well be a measure of Bernstein’s defining influence on our sensibilities. In his intriguing essay accompanying these CDs, Bernstein diagnoses a Mahler doppelganger as the source of tension, distortion, and exaggeration in this music. Though I have still not quite come to terms with Mahler, I am happy to keep trying through these alarming performances. Thanks to my own doppelganger, I have them.

Leonard Bernstein also comes to mind with the new CD release of his 1953 Decca mono recordings in a five-disc budget DG set, which contains Beethoven’s Third, Dvorak’s Ninth, Schumann’s Second, and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. The listed New York Stadium Symphony Orchestra is actually the New York Philharmonic in another guise. In any case, these performances reveal Bernstein’s blazing interpretive genius in its early stages. They also come from a more civilized time when there were public music-education efforts. Bernstein played a major role in these, especially in his famous televised Young People’s Concerts, which I recall seeing as a kid in the 1960s. Each symphony here is accompanied by a charming talk commissioned by the Book-of-the-Month Club, in which Bernstein explains the work with musical illustrations.

The performances themselves, in good mono sound, are full of passion and extremely exciting. Bernstein delivers a searing version of the Dvorak, not what one usually expects from this highly lyrical work. Bernstein plays the Ninth as if it were by Beethoven. Then he does the same with Schumann’s Second. I am not particularly enamored of Tchaikovsky’s music, except for the ballets, but I am very fond of Bernstein’s recording of Symphony No. 1, Winter Dreams. This galvanizing performance of the Sixth makes me reconsider my attitude toward Tchaikovsky. I also have Bernstein’s 1987 recording of the Sixth, to which he added more than eleven minutes. As he aged, Bernstein took to distending the music he was interpreting. His later Sixth is highly indulgent but mesmerizing in its profound gloom.

I will make one last mention of Bernstein before returning to the Christmas theme. Around 1986, I saw him conduct the Shostakovich Symphony No. 7, Leningrad, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We waited what seemed an interminable time for Bernstein to appear. From my orchestra seat, I saw Bernstein in the wings, with several people pushing and pulling him onto the stage. He was fighting back. Finally, he gave up and walked to the podium from which he proceeded to deliver one of the most unforgettable musical experiences I have had. He knew what he was about to go through and what it would cost him. I cannot imagine how exhausted he must have been afterwards. You can hear why in the 1987 DG recording of this performance.

As I have pointed out in past issues of CRISIS, agnostics and atheists have written some of the best Christmas music. One thinks of Ralph Vaughn Williams’s Hodie Christus Natus Est, Gerald Finzi’s Dies Natalis, and, most especially, Hector Berlioz’s glorious L’Enfance du Christ. Even if they do not believe in God, much less Christ, these and other composers have found something ineffably appealing about Christmas. I now add Camille Saint-Saens and his Christmas Oratorio to the list. Written for soloists, choir, organ, harp, and orchestra, this work is listed as Saint-Saens’s opus 12. Though written early in his career, it is highly refined and possessed of a disarming simplicity that fits the subject matter perfectly. The melodies are simply lovely.

This sweetly lyrical, gentle work is offered by the Bach Choir and Orchestra, under Diethard Hellmann, on the new Profil label. The recording is actually from 1976 and sounds it. However, the performance is fine. (Alas, this is a full-priced CD of only 40 minutes’ duration, but I do not know that it has any competition.) I have just learned from the Chandos label that Saint-Saens returned to religious subject matter in 1878 out of an obligation he felt to a sponsor who had died. For him, he composed a Requiem Mass that is imbued, once again, with Saint-Saens’s outstanding lyrical gift. Mostly reflective in character, this work, like the Oratorio, has no bluster in it. It, too, is highly refined and melodically gorgeous. The Swiss Italian Chorus and Orchestra, under conductor Diego Fasolis, give a glowing performance, only set back a bit by the close-to-sobbing style of the tenor.

For the Christmas list, I have also sought out other liturgical works, though they may not be seasonal. I particularly looked forward to listening to Sven-David Sandstrom’s High Mass, a massive work for three sopranos, two mezzos, chorus, organ, and orchestra that lasts more than an hour and a half. The Swedish composer’s work could hardly be more ambitious. It attempts to take after Bach’s great Mass. Unfortunately, it fails. It is more pretentious than portentous. For example, the Crucifixus setting is repeated 21 times with little variation; then, with hardly a pause, it is followed by a cheery Et resurrexit. The Hosanna motif in the Sanctus is repeated more than 40 times. I had to stop counting. I could not take it. This is a kind of maximalist minimalism with a vengeance. What could Sandstrom have been thinking? Somewhere, beneath this behemoth, there lies a good Mass. A good editor could find it, though Tavener, Part, Penderecki, Gorecki, and Rutti have already done this kind of thing better. You might wish to turn to them to supply a Christmas treat for the music lover in your family.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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