Classical Tunes to Ring In the Holidays
The warmth of the season is reflected in CDs that offer fresh versions of traditional music, or take on a contemporary flavor
ST. LOUIS — At our house, the final Thanksgiving-turkey sandwiches mark the official beginning of the Christmas season. From that time on, nothing but Christmas music plays on the stereo.
This year's batch of Christmas compact discs includes an unusually strong collection of classical albums, proving that ''Jingle Bells'' and ''Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer'' are not the only ways to create a festive atmosphere.
The pure sound of the classical men's choir, Chanticleer, sets the mood without being frivolous or overly secular with Sing We Christmas (Teldec).
The album's 18 pieces - dating from the Renaissance through the 20th century - offer a mini-course in music history. The selections are sung in German, Latin, French, Spanish, Catalan, and English.
Billed as the only ''full-time classical vocal ensemble'' in the United States, this 12-member group sings entirely a cappella. The men's powerful voices carry with exquisite clarity.
The German carol ''With Sweet Jubilation'' is presented in four versions, opening with a harmonization from the 16th century and closing with a choral setting by Johann Sebastian Bach. The four-voice ''Noel Canon'' by Steven Sametz, a professor of music at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., is a contemporary wonder based on the text of a medieval carol.
Chanticleer, named for the ''clear-singing'' rooster in Chaucer's ''Canterbury Tales,'' also offers a French shepherd's carol, a traditional carol from northeastern Spain, America's own ''A Christmas Carol,'' and a graceful German version of ''Stille Nacht.''
For a more contemporary choral sound, look to Christmas at the Brooklyn Tabernacle (Warner Alliance). The Brooklyn Tabernacle Singers and the London Studio Orchestra offer an eclectic mix of holiday songs.
This album offers an interesting blend of sounds from the rousing version of ''O Come Emmanuel'' through the smooth duet ''You Shall Call His Name Jesus'' to the Caribbean beat of ''First Day of the Son.'' The more uncommon holiday selections are set off by a grouping of five traditional Christmas carols.
Sony's Greatest Hits Christmas offers a mix of orchestral arrangements and choral offerings. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings on 10 of the 25 tracks, providing a taste of everything from ''O Come All Ye Faithful'' to ''I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.''
Symphonies from around the world are featured, including the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Tenor Jose Carreras is featured on ''O Holy Night,'' and mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne joins the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for ''Angels We Have Heard on High.''
This album offers a muted, instrumental version of ''Jingle Bells'' from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra that is unusual enough to enliven the old favorite.
The CD closes with Tchaikovsky's ''Russian Dance'' from ''The Nutcracker Suite,'' and the ''Hallelujah'' chorus from Handel's ''Messiah'' - two elegant pieces that say Christmas to everyone.
A simple string quartet breathes new life into Christmas classics on Rejoice (John Marks Records). Arturo Delmoni and Alexander Romanul on violins, Katherine Murdock on viola, and Nathaniel Rosen on cello bring out the natural beauty in the songs of Christmas.
This album will substitute nicely if you won't be having a live string quartet at this year's Christmas party. The 24 tracks include everything from ''Joy to the World'' and ''Deck the Halls'' to ''Angels From Realms of Glory'' and ''O Sanctissima.''
For something different this holiday season, try Jazz to the World (Blue Note, Capitol Records). This collection of jazzy favorites gives a new twist to the familiar. Herbie Hancock is featured on ''I'll Be Home For Christmas,'' and Anita Baker gives a rhythm-and-blues sound to ''The Christmas Song.'' Lou Rawls shows up on ''Baby, It's Cold Outside,'' and Chick Corea gives us ''What Child Is This?''
For one of the more pop-oriented selections this year, a group of singers who are also mothers celebrates the magic of Christmas as seen through the eyes of their children on Mother & Child (I.R.S. Records).
The eclectic mix of singers illustrates the range of female voices and the universality of a mother's joy at sharing Christmas with the little ones.
Martina McBride starts the album off with a stunning a cappella rendition of ''Oh Holy Night.'' This is the only traditional Christmas song on the CD; several others are original songs written by producer Tena Clark.
Suzy Bogguss brings her husky, country sound to a song she co-authored. Titled ''Through Your Eyes,'' the tune provides a peek at Christmas from a child's perspective. Other mothers and singers on the album are CeCe Winans, Amy Grant, Olivia Newton-John, and Belinda Carlisle.
Mannheim Steamroller is back this year with its third holiday album, Christmas in the Aire (American Gramaphone). The group's modern, synthesized sound, arranged by Chip Davis, makes for good background music.
While quality singing from the likes of Chanticleer and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir demands close attention, this mostly instrumental music invites you to tune in to the surrounding festivities.
Mannheim Steamroller's selections have an international flair, however, which greatly increases the album's appeal.
A boys' choir in northern Germany is included in the German version of ''O Come All Ye Faithful.'' And the Spanish carol ''Los Peces en el Rio'' is a popular one throughout Mexico and Latin America.
The group also offers the Irish tune ''Pat a Pan'' and plays the Renaissance-era ''Gagliarda'' on historic instruments of the period.
For those who like to cozy up to the fire at the holidays, this is a perfect way to circle the globe and leave the traveling to others.