Christmas is attuned to music as no other season, so what could stuff a stocking for the music lover on your list better than the gift of melody? Here are some suggestions.
For the "Messiah" enthusiast: Nothing sums up the spirit of Christmas better than Handel's oratorio. My recommendations haven't changed much in recent years: Andrew Davis (EMI) for the grand, large-scale approach; Robert Shaw (Telarc) for a lovely middle-of-the-road version; and Sir Colin Davis (Philips Duo) for an outstanding budget choice that brings the music alive with an appealing intimacy.
For the Mahler lover: 1998 was a good year for aficionados of the emotional composer who encapsulates 20th-century angst as no other. Two excellent Mahler Fifths are available, one from Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra with conductor Riccardo Chailly (London) and the other from Daniele Gatti with his Royal Philharmonic (Conifer). The thorny Third Symphony, longest of the nine, sounds accessible with Esa-Pekka Salonen at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Sony).
For the Anglophile: Lovers of all things English will swoon at 20 lush arrangements of folk songs from the United Kingdom sung by the Choir of New College, Oxford on an Erato disc called "Early One Morning." "The Ash Grove," "Londonderry Air" (aka "Danny Boy"), "Loch Lomond" and "Greensleeves" are all there, sumptuously sung.
For the history buff: Try Joel Cohen and his Boston Camerata in "Liberty Tree," an anthology of early American music from the revolution through the outbreak of Civil War. The real "Yankee Doodle" is here (naughty fourth and fifth verses included), along with only-in-America versions of "Auld Lang Syne" and the aforementioned "Greensleeves." The concluding "Ode on Science" provides quite a commentary on the nation's image of itself as it bade farewell to the 18th century.
For the lover of the Baroque: Her name is Angela Hewitt. She is a Canadian pianist and she plays the most stunningly varied and vital J. S. Bach since her eccentric countryman, Glenn Gould, electrified the music world with his playing nearly 40 years ago. Catch her in Book I of "The Well-Tempered Clavier" on the Hyperion label. Captivating. Cheap it's not, but if anything is worth splurging on this holiday season, it's this set.
For the spiritualist: Don't settle for some drippy piece of New Age slush. Go for the remarkable "Kanon Pokjanen" (Canon of Repentance) by the Estonian composer Arvo Part on the ECM label. This is sacred liturgy from the Greek-Russian Orthodox tradition that opens up the soul and lays bare the spirit of penitence with passionate sincerity. It is music of the light, and any spiritualist worthy of the name would be thrilled to own it.
For the Mozart lover: Perhaps the most indispensable Mozart set was issued this year, as Deutsche Grammophon's "Originals" series released Karl Bohm and the Berlin Philharmonic in the final half-dozen Mozart symphonies.
This is gorgeous, absorbingly intelligent big-band Mozart at its best. Why anyone would ever want any of those mincing, wimpy "authentic performance" performances after hearing these is beyond me.
Whichever you pick, I wish a Merry Christmas full of great music to all.
Pub Date: 12/17/98