December 2012

Horns for the HolidaysReference Recordings Makes a Holiday CD for Audiophiles

Reference Recordings RR-126
Format: HDCD

Musical Performance

Sound Quality

Overall Enjoyment

During the month of December, just about every high-school band in the land will play a holiday concert. Many college organizations will follow suit. But recordings of seasonal music by concert bands and wind ensembles are extremely rare. For the life of me, I can't even think of one off the top of my head.

Horns for the Holidays, though it is retro in its musical selections and arrangements, is a refreshing new commentary on the holiday season as far as recordings go. The Dallas Wind Symphony and its conductor, Jerry Junkin, are fully prepared to achieve this feat, as they play a Christmas concert every year. This group is a regular on the Reference Recordings roster, so it makes sense that RR has decided to chronicle one of the Dallas Wind Symphony's events. But rather than taking the easy way out by recording a live concert, RR has made this a studio affair, allowing them to tweak the sound to audiophile standards.

There are a couple of "must record" items here by Leroy Anderson -- his ever-popular Sleigh Ride and his A Christmas Festival, a mash-up of popular holiday tunes that ends by pitting the secular against the religious, with "Jingle Bells" from the woodwinds meeting the lower-brass boom of "Adeste Fidelis." Another familiar item is all religious -- "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," the chorale from Bach's cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben. The Dallas players have chosen to use the popular and effective arrangement by Alfred Reed, and they play it with due reverence and sumptuous tonality.

The remainder of the disc is devoted to compositions and arrangements of familiar holiday tunes that will be new to most listeners. "Jingle Bells" is back again, in an elaborate fantasy by John Wasson (according to the program notes, the original composer, James Lord Pierpont, was a minster's son "gone wrong"). "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting)," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" have arrangements that bring out the best in the Dallas players, both as soloists and ensemble members.

My favorite cut is Minor Alterations: Christmas Through the Looking Glass, in which composer David Lovrien has taken some of the holiday's happiest songs, like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Silver Bells," and put them into minor keys instead of their usual major. Every musician knows that trick: play a melody in the minor key and make it sad, but Lovrien's clever, inventive composition makes the songs sound like they could have been originally written in minor keys, or by gypsies, or by the Russians. A wry smile and a nod of recognition will be in order here instead of riotous laughter.

Because it's Reference Recordings, there's little to say about the sound except that it's as good as RR's other Dallas recordings from the Meyerson Symphony Center -- in other words, it's pretty sensational. Balances are incredibly good, from the high piccolo down to the lowest organ pedal (yes, there's organ on three of the tracks). The sound is warm and rich, yet every detail is audible. In addition to being one of the only holiday recordings by a wind ensemble or band, this is also one of the choice holiday discs that audiophiles will thoroughly enjoy.

Be sure to listen to: The disc opens with Festival Fanfare, another composition by John Wasson. It's a real showpiece for the brass sections of the wind ensemble -- horns, trumpets, trombones, and tuba -- and it's recorded so that each section is identifiable while having wonderful weight and presence when heard together.

. . . Rad Bennett