New Classical Tracks: Contemporary carols with a familiar ring

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"Karolju" - Christmas Music from Rouse, Lutoslawski and Rodrigo: David Zinman, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus (RCA Red Seal 88697-11561-2)
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Here's a new Christmas recording of contemporary carols that are completely new, yet sound familiar. This release features the world premiere of an uplifting work by Christopher Rouse called "Karolju," along with Polish carols from Witold Lutoslawski and a Christmas suite by Joaquin Rodrigo. "Karolju" is an idea Christopher Rouse had been thinking about for quite some time. This joyful salute to Christmastime was given a name invented by the composer. It's a combination of the word "carol," ending in "u," because Rouse likes words that end in "u."

This world premiere recording of "Karolju" is the result of 17 years of patience on the part of conductor David Zinman. Shortly after becoming music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1985, Zinman invited Baltimore-based composer Christopher Rouse to become their composer in residence. For the next three years, Rouse wrote several works for the orchestra, including this set of 11 joyous carols.

"Karolju" was inspired by traditional carols, and by Carl Orff's masterpiece, "Carmina Burana." Rouse offers a small homage to Orff in carols No. 1 and 10, by including a paraphrase of the coda to the "O Fortuna" movements of "Carmina Burana."

Listen closely to the third carol, and you'll hear a small phrase Rouse borrowed from Tchaikovksy's "Nutcracker." In fact, Tchaikovsky himself pilfered that phrase from an 18th century minuet. Other than those few references, all of the music in "Karolju" is original. It's also effervescent.

The "Little March of the Kings" is catchy, like the dances from "The Nutcracker." While the melodies are memorable, the lyrics may not be. Rouse wrote texts in a variety of languages. Rather than creating great poetry, he was more interested in matching the sound of the language to the style of the carol.

The text seems secondary in the final "Italian" carol. This piece captures the feeling of awe and mystery often associated with the Christmas season. The choral segments wash over the heartfelt instrumental solos and the sumptuous orchestral score. Poland's Witold Lutoslawski was a major European composer of the 20th century. Seventeen of his 20 Polish carols appear on this new Christmas collection. I never tire of listening to these beautiful songs. They vary in energy and style.

"We are Shepherds" elevates the spirit with its uplifting melodies, and rich orchestral accompaniment. Soprano Julia Doyle's voice is angelic and hypnotic on several works, including "Lullaby, Jesus."

Mezzo-soprano Anny Stephany offers a more operatic approach to Rodrigo's "Retablo de Navidad." On "Holy Shepherd Boy," her expressive style tells the story of the Christ child with tender emotion.

Traditions are handed down from one generation to another. Christopher Rouse established a new tradition when he composed "Karolju" to celebrate his daughter's first Christmas in 1990. With this world premiere recording, this music can now become a tradition for all of us.

Add to that 17 Polish Carols by Lutoslawski, and a Christmas suite by Rodrigo, and we have a delightful collection of contemporary carols.

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