A Little Christmas Music
In order to quell the constant echolalia of Christmas Songs which seem to cloud the judgment of the world from Thanksgiving until the first, I've been trying to put some other sounds in my ear. This Christmas: Brahms, specifically the new disc of cello sonatas plus some bonus piano works performed by David Finckel and Wu Han, which would definitely get on my best-of 2005 list if I were disposed to making lists. This is just a really, really, really good record, capaciously recorded and movingly performed. Han's piano contains rich orchestral multitudes, kicking Finckel into that not-quite-chamber-but-also-not-orchestrally-boomy sound that makes for excellent Brahms. Their e minor sonata--a symphony unto itself, at least in sheer scope--is fraught, anxious, funny, coy, smirking, dark, seething, manic and ultimately potent, and their F major is equally effective, at points heartbreaking, and at others wistful, gay, hysterical and soothing. Brahms' work is easy to schmaltz up, to dose in faux-Slavic ardor in order to achieve the maximum effect for a given moment, losing sight of the overall mission. In other words, it is too easy to sacrifice overall devastation to the false god of momentary ecstasy--and into this trap these players do not fall, never once. Han's intermezzi--especially the famous and ravishing A major--are a textbook rendering of how this music ought to be played: open-throttled when needed, but sparingly as well, with appropriate reserve. The fact that the sound quality is remarkable doesn't hurt. As a lifetime lover of Brahms--I even co-wrote a biography for kids--this is among the best records of the composer's chamber music I've ever heard. And you'd be supporting the rather revolutionary take-to-the-streets ethos that is the Artistled label.
Of course, two obvious newcomers (soon to be seasonal mainstays) are John Eliot Gardiner's new record of Bach's Christmas Cantatas and Harnoncourt's new Messiah, over which I've previously gushed here. If any music stands a chance of knocking "Feed the world/let them know it's Christmastime" (and really, not even Beethoven himself returning from the grave with a new symphony could do that) then these recordings might stand a chance. At least they've worked for me.