New Classical Tracks: Christmas, Played on Strings

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
December 21, 2010
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St. Paul, Minn. — Do you still have presents to wrap, cookies to bake, shopping to finish? If you're feeling a little frantic this time of year, I have just the thing to help you breathe. It's a new collection of Christmas works from around the globe featuring Canadian violinist Angele Dubeau and her all-female ensemble La Pieta. On their new recording, "Noel," we hear some familiar works and some with a familiar ring that may be new to our ears. The common thread throughout this recording is beautiful melodies, and the glowing sound of the strings. The other nice thing about this recording is you can enjoy it long after the holidays are over.

In Finland the official Christmas festivities start with a declaration of "Christmas Peace," broadcast on December 24th from Turku Cathedral. Then Christmas bells ring out across the country. Those bells are the first thing we hear on this recording in a piece titled "The Bells of Christmas," written by Armas Maasalo. Picture a quiet blanket of snow as you listen to this thoughtful interpretation by Angele Dubeau and La Pieta.

Christmas in Italy means mouth-watering panettone, a Christmas sweet bread stuffed with cream and covered with chocolate. Italy is also where the first live nativity scene was assembled by Francis of Assisi in 1223, with villagers taking on various roles. It wasn't long before manger scenes of all shapes and sizes became a tradition with Italian families. That may be why Giuseppe Torelli and Antonio Vivaldi, two of Italy's most famous Baroque composers, dedicated concertos to the "the holy birth." The opening movement of Vivaldi's concerto, "Per il Santissimo Natale," is charming and delicate.

The most important part of celebrating the Nativity in France is the collection of carols known as "Cantiques de Noel." By the 16th century there were numerous versions of these carols in various regional dialects. Some were even distributed by door-to-door salesmen. Three of these carols are interspersed throughout this recording. The most familiar may be "Noel Nouvelet." Dubeau and La Pieta, play an arrangement in quick tempo, and some unexpected pauses, but the simplicity of this joyous carol still comes through.

Mexico marks the Christmas holiday with "Los Posadas," which means "the Inns." A procession is led by children who go door-to-door reenacting Mary and Joseph's struggle to find room at the inn. When they arrive at the chosen house or church the doors are flung open and the celebration begins with the breaking of a pinata, refreshments and lots of dancing. Jazz legend Dave Brubeck composed a cantata named for this celebration titled "La Fiesta de la Posada," with text by his wife, Iola. On this recording, we hear his tender lullaby, "Sleep, Holy Infant," which was arranged by Russell Gloyd especially for Angele Dubeau, the featured soloist.

It might seem impossible that in just one night Saint Nicholas can travel around the world delivering gifts in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer; however on this new release, "Noel," with violinist Angele Dubeau and her ensemble La Pieta we do make it around the globe in just over an hour. With stops in Scandinavia, France, Germany and Central America, this fine string ensemble gives us a taste of delightful music and holiday traditions the world over.

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