THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM
Emerson Records: Keith CD 1
One of the great annoyances of the holiday season is the large amount of horrendous Christmas music that pops up on store shelves for a few weeks. Mercifully, it all disappears after the New Year. Just about everybody has recorded some sort of Christmas album, but the fact that the artist who sets out to spread some yuletide cheer has talent is no guarantee of success.
This is particularly true of the rock genre, where the pickings have always been pretty slim–“Jingle Bell Rock” and “Blue Christmas” having endured due to some measure of vulgar vitality. Although old Christmas albums by the Beach Boys, the Supremes, the Carpenters, et al, ad nauseam, have been reappearing on compact disc, most of these releases were intended to be mellow and meaningful, and do not at all reflect what these artists did the rest of the year.
So I wasn’t expecting much when I heard there was a Keith Emerson Christmas album out this season. The last entries in the Emerson catalog were scaled-down Emerson, Lake and Palmer reunion attempts–first with Greg Lake and a new drummer, then with Carl Palmer and a new singer-bassist. These attempts may have interested the diehard ELP fan of the 70s, but both lacked the raw edge and innovations that catapulted the group to superstardom in the first place. When the British trio first appeared in 1970, they seemed to appear in a vacuum. Into a rock world dominated by guitar feedback, 4/4 meters, I-IV-V chord patterns, and indecipherable screaming came an entirely new sound dominated by wild, virtuoso organ and synthesizer lines, and constantly changing, complex meters and harmonic structures–all with a mellow, in-tune voice asking heavy 70s philosophical questions such as “Have you walked on the stones of years?”
The synthesizer and keyboards in general were virtually unknown in rock circles up to that time. There were isolated exceptions, notably the Beatles’ use of piano and early, pre-Rhodes electric piano as block-chord textures in some of their later music, and the Farfisa organ’s use by groups such as the Doors during the psychedelic era (later to be resurrected by the minimalists). But no one was using keyboard instruments and their infinite variety of sound possibilities as the dominant sound in a rock group until Keith Emerson came along, first in an obscure quartet, later a trio known as the Nice in the late 60s, and then as the ELP guru.
A couple of Christmases ago Emerson tried to find some good Christmas music for some of his Sussex neighbors who dropped over for a holiday drink. Unsuccessful, they all ended up in his barn studio, where he began improvising on some traditional carols. One thing led to another, and an Emerson Christmas album was under way.
What distinguishes the Emerson approach from most other rock attempts at recording Christmas music is its hard edge and nonsyrupy approach. This is a record that needn’t be shelved after the New Year.
Certain traditional carols, notably “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” have been so radically transformed melodically and harmonically that you’ll be hard pressed to recognize them. “Bethlehem,” which opens the album, is a series of six variations, ranging from a Baroque synthesized to a free-form jazz piano style, arranged so seamlessly and stylishly that it all works somehow. “Midnight Clear” features a wild Leo Kottke-inspired 12-string guitar romp that is allowed to take off in a way that would be impossible on guitar–but then this is digital keyboard technology.
Only two numbers have vocals on them, a refreshing and sensible decision, since Emerson is far more interesting as an instrumental artist than any of the singers who have accompanied him over the years, who have served only to cheapen and date his material. Luckily, the singing is provided by choirs rather than rock vocalists: an excellent children’s chorus from the West Park School in a totally offbeat original called “Captain Starship Christmas,” about the Christmas Eve appearance of a colorful UFO to some children, which was inspired by “A Visit From Saint Nicholas”; and members of the London Community Gospel Choir, accompanied on piano, in a high-intensity, soulfully rendered gospel arrangement of “Silent Night.”
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is represented by a Wendy Carlos-inspired synthesized account of the alto aria “Schlafe, mein Liebster” (“Sleep, my beloved”)–the most beautiful of all Christmas “cradle” songs–which is given an abridged but ethereal treatment that emphasizes its main theme and lullaby qualities without becoming sugarcoated. The French “Petites litanies de Jesus” is given a beautiful chimelike pastel coloring that is extraordinarily moving. And all the stops are pulled out for the most exciting track of the album, an original called “Snowman’s Land,” a fiery, intense winter romp through the snow that will leave you breathless.
The unique and refreshing thing about this album–which also includes “We Three Kings” and “I Saw Three Ships”–is the extraordinary care and attention to detail that went into each of these arrangements. It is a kaleidoscope of Christmas vignettes that are as remarkable for their diversity as for their originality.
The album was made available so late in the season that it has yet to arrive in American record shops, but it is available from Eye & I Productions, Inc., 930 Jungfrau Court, Milpitas, California 95035, 408-945-0139.
A CHRISTMAS ALBUM
Newport Classic Digital: 60072
Another favorite–and usually boring–genre of Christmas album is of carols played on enormous pipe organs. There are half a dozen new such records each year, often with added chimes and choirs, and usually with about as much gusto as yesterday’s eggnog. Most record companies seem to think sheer massive organ sound is what listeners want, and the instrument is rarely allowed to breathe or reveal its subtlety.
This is not the case with Anthony Newman’s recent entry. Newman’s career, like Emerson’s, exploded in the early 70s, a time when offbeat keyboard virtuosos were quite popular. It was rare in those days to see photos of Newman wearing anything but denim. This image, together with his lightning-fast interpretations of Bach harpsichord and organ favorites, may have gained him enormous popularity with rock-oriented audiences, but many serious music enthusiasts began to associate him with superhype and the crude superficial virtuosity of a young upstart racing through difficult pieces merely to wow his listeners.
Nearly two decades later, Newman’s approach has been vindicated. For one thing, his once-controversial fast tempi are now commonplace among scholarly early-music performers. But Newman has always had unusual performing ideas. He was the first American to re-cord a one-instrument-per-part set of Bach Brandenburg concerti with period instruments, which he conducted from the harpsichord. In 1985 Newman released the first recording of a Beethoven piano concerto (no. 3) on forte piano and period instruments, which was promptly acclaimed and widely imitated. Newman’s Beethoven is distinguished from other sets that incorporate earlier instruments by, among other things, his use of Beethoven’s controversial metronome markings. (The complete set is now available for the first time on the Newport Classic label.)
This may make Newman sound like an early-music purist, but there is also Newman the 20th-century composer and improviser, so thoroughly avant garde that no less a contemporary- music figure than Lukas Foss commissioned a symphony from him, which Foss premiered last Easter in Milwaukee.
But Newman is still associated primarily with the music of Bach, whether conducting it or performing it on clavichord, harpsichord, or organ. Newman was five years old when he began struggling with the big Bach organ pieces, even though he was ten before his feet were long enough to reach the organ pedal board.
There is a big dose of Bach on Newman’s Christmas album, including a toccatalike harmonization of “In dulci jubilo” and two harmonizations of the popular carol “Von Himmel hoch” (“From Heaven Above”). There are also the canonic variations on Von Himmel hoch, which give the hymn five virtuosic transformations as only Bach could conceive them–performed as only Newman could play them. There are many recordings of this work, including at least one other Newman recording that I know of, but for relentless energy and spectacular sound this tops them all.
French Christmas music is represented by 7 of the 12 Noels of Louis-Claude Daquin, a lesser-known Baroque contemporary of Bach. Newman has been dipping more and more into the French repertoire, as evidenced by his recent release of the complete organ works of Franck. One of the reasons is the magnificent new organ that Newman designed for Manhattan’s Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity (where this album was recorded), which features a glorious set of tangy French reeds that allow the various sonorities and combinations that this music demands. Although it would have been nice to have a Newman recording of all 12 Noels, the 7 reflect the diverse color and grandeur of the complete set. Never has the famous “Noel X” sounded more triumphant, and the massive reed duet is magnificently spine shaking, yet never overdone.
Newman’s earlier Christmas album on Vox/Turnabout was all familiar carols, in which the first verses featured medium-voiced accompaniment, the second a Newman improvisation, and the third a roof-raising restatement that combined aspects of the other two, usually with elaborate pedal accompaniment. That same pattern is followed here for six popular carols: “The First Noel,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Silent Night,” “Angels, We Have Heard on High,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Though each is included on the earlier album and though there is little difference between the performances, the instrument and digital sound of the later record make it worth having.
The biggest disappointment of this album is that it is limited to only one aspect of Newman’s art: organ performance and improvisation. Newman has written some very wild Christmas music himself, although none is included here. Also, how nice it would have been to have some harpsichord and forte piano. Last Christmas morning I remember Newman playing a spicy set of improvised harpsichord variations on “Greensleeves” on Charles Kuralt’s program; it would be great to hear that side of Newman as well.