SIMON RAT­TLE/BER­LIN PHIL­HAR­MONIC The Nutcracker (EMI Clas­sics)

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The Nutcracker may be the most widely em­braced and fre­quently en­coun­tered of all bal­lets, but its mu­sic doesn’t al­ways get much re­spect from hard-core clas­si­cal mu­sic lovers. That’s par for the course for bal­let scores, since the short num­bers from which they are built don’t of­fer the pos­si­bil­i­ties for ex­tended devel­op­ment that, say, sym­phonies or con­cer­tos do. The mu­sic of The

Nutcracker has also suf­fered from the vi­cis­si­tudes of Tchaikovsky’s post­hu­mous rep­u­ta­tion. Simon Rat­tle, who con­ducts the Ber­lin Phil­har­monic in this stun­ning per­for­mance, ad­mits in a pro­gram es­say that he “wasn’t al­ways a huge Tchaikovsky fan,” but he has re­versed his opin­ion. “ The

Nutcracker,” he now writes, “is sim­ply one of the great mir­a­cles in mu­sic.” The Ber­lin Phil­har­monic is un­ques­tion­ably one of the world’s finest orches­tras, and Rat­tle, who has al­ways shown a sen­si­tiv­ity to the ex­pres­sive pos­si­bil­i­ties of or­ches­tral color, ex­tracts from his play­ers an en­tranc­ing read­ing of these thrice-fa­mil­iar pages. He presents the full bal­let score, rather than just the fa­mil­iar items from the Nutcracker

Suite, and ev­ery track is su­perb. There are no per­func­tory Reed Pipes or Sugar Plum Fairies here, and the Ber­lin Phil­har­monic cel­lists, so renowned that they con­cer­tize as a self-stand­ing en­sem­ble, leave a lis­tener mo­men­tar­ily con­vinced that there can be no more beau­ti­ful mu­sic than Tchaikovsky’s sim­ple de­scend­ing scale in the Act II Pas de deux. — James M. Keller

RON­NIE SPECTOR Ron­nie Spector’s

Best Christ­mas Ever (Bad Girl

Sounds/The Or­chard) Since the late 1980s, Ron­nie Spector — the lead singer of the 1960s power-pop girl group The Ronettes — has been helm­ing an an­nual Christ­mas party at var­i­ous venues through­out the U.S., most re­cently at B.B. King’s blues club in New York. This slen­der EP serves as a taste-size por­tion of her live show, which mixes her past hits with Christ­mas cov­ers and a heavy dose of per­sonal rem­i­nisces about her child­hood Christ­mases. On “It’s the Time (Happy Hol­i­days)” Spector croons over some ’ 70s yacht-rock melody be­fore segue­ing into a child­hood hol­i­day reverie, “When I was grow­ing up in New York City I asked my dad how was Santa gonna get here, we don’t have a chim­ney. My dad said he’s com­ing down the fire es­cape.” At 67, Spector’s boom­ing voice that pow­ered hits like “Be My Baby” has taken on a slightly husky war­ble that is quite pleas­ant. Even for a Christ­mas al­bum how­ever, that voice gets clouded over by the heavy lay­er­ing of flutes, pianos, and phoned-in string ar­range­ments. The two ex­cep­tions on this al­bum are “My Christ­mas Wish,” which of­fers up a fun slice of Mo­town-era R & B and “It’s Christ­mas Once Again,” which finds Spector coo­ing over the sea­son’s tra­di­tional ar­range­ments of sleigh bells and gui­tar waltz. — Casey Sanchez

JO­HANN MATTHE­SON Christ­mas

Or­a­to­rio, Mag­ni­fi­cat (CPO) Fa­mous in his day as a mu­sic the­o­rist, jour­nal­ist, lex­i­cog­ra­pher, tenor, or­gan­ist, and con­duc­tor, Jo­hann Matthe­son (16811764) was also one of the lead­ing com­posers in late-Baroque Ham­burg. He and Han­del were friends in their youth, but a dif­fer­ence of opin­ion dur­ing a per­for­mance at the Ham­burg Opera (where Matthe­son was per­form­ing on­stage and Han­del in the pit) led to an ar­gu­ment, a duel, and Han­del’s near-de­cease, averted only when Matthe­son’s sword was de­flected by a but­ton on Han­del’s coat. But for that but­ton we would have no Mes­siah (unimag­in­able!), and that might leave more room in the reper­toire for such in­ter­est­ing pieces as Matthe­son’s Christ­mas Or­a­to­rio Die heil­same

Ge­burt, which had its pre­miere in 1715. A cap­ti­vat­ing, quick-mov­ing ren­di­tion of the Na­tiv­ity story, its mu­si­cal style re­minds a lis­tener of Bach, Han­del, and co­eval French com­posers, but Matthe­son’s voice is ul­ti­mately his own. He was a pol­ished tech­ni­cian — his an­gels and shep­herds sing in in­vert­ible coun­ter­point — but he also in­fused his writ­ing with dance-de­rived buoy­ancy. Michael Alexan­der Wil­lens here leads Die Köl­ner Akademie (play­ing pe­riod in­stru­ments) and eight pretty good vo­cal soloists in this or­a­to­rio plus Matthe­son’s ex­cit­ing dou­ble-cho­rus Mag­ni­fi­cat, from 1716. The lat­ter also has Han­delian over­tones, with its open­ing move­ment evok­ing the cho­rus “For unto us a child is born” in Mes­siah — al­though Matthe­son beat Han­del to the punch by about 25 years. — James M. Keller

AN­GRy JOHNNy & THE KIl­lBIl­lIES Bang Bang Baby Bang Bang Merry Christ­mas (Pete’s Pig

Parts) From the dark­est back­woods of Mas­sachusetts comes An­gry Johnny with a sleigh full of songs about all those things that make Christ­mas the most won­der­ful time of the year: Santa Claus, drink­ing, snow, de­pres­sion, shop­ping, gun­play, jin­gle bells, and homi­cide. In other words, all the el­e­ments of a good An­gry Johnny al­bum — plus all the Christ­mas wrap­pings. Kill­billy cultists have known for a long time that the An­gry one had a soft spot for the hol­i­days. Sev­eral years ago he re­leased a free MP3 on his web­site of a song called “Six Bul­lets for Christ­mas.” That song is in­cluded on this al­bum. The ba­sic theme of “Six Bul­lets” — killing a loved on Christ­mas Day as pay­back for in­fi­delity — is re­vis­ited here on the ti­tle song. But this time there’s a twist — a happy end­ing of sorts, at least for most of the char­ac­ters in­volved. Of course, Christ­mas is for the chil­dren. There­fore it’s ap­pro­pri­ate that the open­ing tune, “Shootin’ Snow­men,” is about an in­no­cent, if dan­ger­ous, youth­ful Yule­tide tra­di­tion: “Christ­mas carol from both bar­rels and the snow­man is his­tory.” With songs like “Slaugh­ter in a Win­ter Won­der­land” and “Santa Gets His,” this al­bum is not for the squea­mish. But for those who get tired of hol­i­day fluff, this is more fun than swat­ting a sug­arplum fairy. — Steve Ter­rell

BACH Mag­ni­fi­cat and Can­tata

No. 110 (Chan­nel Clas­sics) Jo­hann Se­bas­tian Bach’s Mag­ni­fi­cat is an ev­er­green fa­vorite in his cat­a­log, and it’s no won­der. Each of its 12 move­ments is a bite-sized morsel, and to­gether they add up to a sonic repast that leaves the lis­tener sat­is­fied but not over­stuffed. It’s sur­pris­ing that the much-lauded Nether­lands Bach So­ci­ety hasn’t recorded it be­fore, but with this re­lease it fills the gap ad­mirably, with its di­rec­tor Jos van Veld­hoven lead­ing a per­for­mance that is su­perb in its choral and in­stru­men­tal work and gen­er­ally ex­cel­lent in its solo sing­ing. The text of the Mag­ni­fi­cat does not specif­i­cally re­late to Christ­mas (it’s Mary’s ex­pres­sion of di­vine praise re­lat­ing to her cousin’s preg­nancy), but its ap­pli­ca­tion to Christ­mas seems not much of a stretch. In Bach’s Ger­many it was of­ten given at Christ­mas with ex­tra move­ments grafted in from other works to strengthen the sea­sonal con­nec­tion. Van Veld­hoven fol­lows that prac­tice here, en­larg­ing Bach’s set­ting with win­ning move­ments by 17th­cen­tury Dutch and Ger­man masters: Sweel­inck, Schein, Jan Bap­tist Ver­rijt, and Jo­hann Michael Bach (a nephew of J.S.’ grand­fa­ther). Thus is a fa­mil­iar mas­ter­piece made fresh in this warmly rec­om­mended CD, which also in­cludes an ex­cel­lent per­for­mance of Bach’s Can­tata No. 110, writ­ten for Christ­mas of 1725. If its open­ing cho­rus sounds oddly fa­mil­iar, it’s be­cause Bach re­cy­cled its mu­sic from his pop­u­lar Fourth Or­ches­tral Suite. — James M. Keller

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