Stocking Stuffers: Musical Christmas Gifts

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

This column was going to be titled "Christmas Music For People Who Hate Christmas Music." I thought I was well qualified to write on that subject. Problem is, so far, I have not found any such music I could recommend. Maybe next year.

Instead, I've decided to answer the most frequently asked question I would get at this time of year, if my readers were to take the time to send in their questions: What new compact discs make the best Christmas gifts?

There is a good reason for confining this discussion to new CDs, even though older releases can certainly make great gifts, too. The chances of the recipient already owning a copy of a new release are considerably diminished. So here's my pick of the best recent issues:

1) Pavarotti's Opera Made Easy (London). This is a series of 20 CDs, available separately, specifically designed to introduce opera to new audiences. It feature's 60 singers, including Pavarotti, performing the most famous songs from the repertoire.

I listened to half of these albums while installing stone walkways in our flower garden, and I must admit it made this dreadful, backbreaking task absolutely enjoyable. Perhaps this is why Italians make such terrific gardeners - they sing opera while they work. Or maybe it's why Italians make such terrific singers - they practice while they garden!

In any case these CDs thoroughly overcame my own usually less-than-completely enthusiastic reaction to opera. If "My Favorite Moments from La Bohéme" (London 443 826) doesn't turn your Christmas-gift recipient on to opera, I can't imagine what would!

"My Favorite Opera for Children" (London 443 817) would certainly make a great gift for kids. It includes everything from the "Children's March" from Bizet's Carmen to five catchy tunes from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. But there is absolutely no Pavarotti on this particular disc, if that's what you're looking for. I resent this use of the Big Name to sell CDs. But, then again, I suppose there are bigger problems facing humanity than paying over-rich, overweight opera singers to push classical music on unsuspecting, rock 'n' roll-bred babyboomers.

One thing to watch out for, though, if you buy more than one CD from this series, is the repetition of songs with identical performers. For example "Che gelida manina" from Puccini's La Bohéme, sung by Luciano Pavarotti, appears on "My Favorite Moments from La Bohéme," "My Favorite Opera for Everyone" (London 443 818), "My Favorite Love Songs" (London 443 599) and "My Favorite Heroes" (London 443 822).

2) Brubeck: Just You, Just Me (Telarc CD-83363). It's been nearly 40 years since 74-year-old composer/pianist Dave Brubeck made a solo recording. Judging by the two excerpts Telarc sent critics and broadcasters to promote the new release, I wish he hadn't waited so long and would do this more often.

Like the Dave Brubeck Quartet recordings of the 1950's, the new album will appeal to both classical and jazz enthusiasts. Brubeck - a classically-trained musician who was once a student of Darius Milhaud - has his own unique and highly accessible style. It's evident in both "Lullaby" and "Variations on Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

3) Borodin: Symphonies 1 & 2 and In the Steppes of Central Asia (London 436 651). Vladimir Ashkenazy leads the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in these melodious, romantic works. These pieces are likely to be missing from many a collection, and shouldn't be.

4) If your gift list includes someone who would appreciate the sounds of a loud, stereophonic moo, I suggest The Very Best of Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops (Telarc CD-80401). It starts with a bang, I mean a cow, in its first selection, "Sounds of the West." I thought this CD would appeal to my four-year-old granddaughter, but she screamed bloody murder when track 13 started with the opening sequence from Chiller and concluded with the "Overture" to Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. For the same price you also get "Tara's Theme" from Gone With the Wind, Jurassic Lunch, the main title from Star Wars and the theme from The Pink Panther.

5) Winner in the humor category (where, frankly, there ain't much competition) is "P.D.Q. Bach's" Concerto for Two Pianos vs. Orchestra, an album which also includes Chaconne á son Gout and The Musical Sacrifice (S. 50% Off). These pieces are introduced on the CD by mock automated telephone choice announcements which, I think, are as funny as the music. Not very. Only kidding!

The program notes are also quite amusing, i.e. Prof. Schickele's explanation of a chaconne: "a variation form in which usually the bass instruments play the same melody over and over again, day in and day out, while the other instruments do various things to try to relieve the monotony."

6) For the hard-rock teenager you're trying to introduce to classical music, there is Vivaldi's Revenge: The New Four Seasons (Omega OCD 3020) performed by Pierre Saint-Denis, flute, and Ilan Rechtman on the Macintosh IIfx workstation! Not exactly my cup of tea but, hey, if it brings just one new convert to classical, I say it's worth it. Besides, what do I know? - I don't even like tea.

7) The only kind of music I dislike more than Medieval songs and chants is imitation early music - such as that found in abundance in the original motion picture soundtrack for Nostradamus, composed by Barrington Pheloung (London 443 946). Nevertheless, this kind of music is all the rage now, so I mention this CD for those who can't get enough of the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. Their CD, Chant (Angel 55138), has now sold over 2 million copies and has spawned Beyond Chant (Delos DEL 3165), Chill to the Chant (RCA 62666) and I can't imagine how many others.

But, as for me, I'd prefer tea.

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