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Audio"Fum, Fum, Fum" by Apollo's Fire
AudioSuo Gân - Welsh lullaby, arr. Lawrence J. Wiliford performed by Cantus
AudioRudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer/Let It Snow performed by John Bayless
AudioThe First Noël performed by Heidi Grant Murphy
Audio "Sing a Joyful Song of Christmas," by Ronald Kauffman performed by the Vienna Boys Choir
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A musical holiday wishlist
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Clockwise from top left: "Christmas Rhapsody" featuring John Bayless; "Merry Christmas – Carols from North America and Europe" featuring the Vienna Boys Choir; "Noels and Carols from the Olde World" by Apollo's Fire; "Comfort and Joy, Volume One" by Cantus. and "The Gifts of Christmas" with Heidi Grant Murphy. (MPR Graphic/Preston Wright)
Santa is not the only one with his list checked twice. Classical host Julie Amacher shares holiday picks that might help you deck the halls.

St. Paul, Minn. —

"Noels & carols from the Olde World"
Apollo's Fire/Jeannette Sorrell; Sandra Simon, soprano
Koch 7582

When you wander into a unique gift shop filled with unusual gems from faraway lands, you want to take your time and browse a little. That's what I think of when I listen to "Noels & Carols from the Olde Worlde," with Apollo's Fire.

This Cleveland-area baroque orchestra takes its name from the classical god of music, sun and poetry. Combine that fanciful idea with the heat and energy they put into their performances, and imaginations run wild. Many of the songs they play on this new holiday recording may be unfamiliar, however, they were the popular folk songs of old Europe. The carols we're more likely to recognize like "Il est né le divin enfant," or "Fum, Fum, Fum," originally came down to us just as melodies, which is why Music Director Jeannette Sorrell wanted to explore "the rich and varied possibilities for performing these little jewels." In addition to Sorrell's uplifting arrangements heard on period instruments, the lilting voice of soprano Sandra Simon makes this recording even more special.

In listening to "Noels and Carols from the Olde World," you're bound to find yourself drifting back to the snowy streets of wintry old Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

"Comfort and Joy, Volume One"
Cantus, vocals
Cantus Recordings 1204

The dictionary definition for "comfort" is: a condition or feeling of pleasurable ease, well-being and contentment.

That is precisely how you'll feel after you've listened to "Comfort and Joy," Volume 1, featuring the Minnesota-based a cappella group, Cantus. With unique arrangements of many familiar carols, and meditative works by composers like Morten Lauridsen and Franz Biebl, you can't help but feel hopeful. This ensemble sounds so much bigger than its ten voices, even when they're offering quiet contemplative phrases. Cantus is all about rich textures and gorgeous harmonies. While you're absorbing the rich textures and gorgeous harmonies of "Comfort and Joy, Vol. 1," make note Volume 2 is due out in 2005.

"Christmas Rhapsody"
John Bayless, piano
Koch 9610

Sometimes when friends or family drop in unannounced, you have to improvise to pull off an impromptu get-together. And this is the holiday music to go with that spur-of-the-moment affair. It's filled with timeless classics with an added twist – improvised fantasies and medleys of all the carols.

John Bayless was raised on Bach, Mozart, Chopin and Rachmaninoff. The film scores of Mancini, Rota, Steiner, Hermann and Williams were also a great influence. At 17, when he went to study in New York at Juilliard, Bayless worked with Adele Marcus who recognized his ability to improvise and encouraged him to run with it. On this recording, that's exactly what he does.

For "Christmas Rhapsody," Bayless chose to share these carols in their purest form. Simplicity is at the core of his original arrangements, though Bayless admits he did venture into the land of Rachmaninoff when he combined "Winter Wonderland" with "Jingle Bells."

This recording captures the many moods of the holiday. From the peaceful reflection of Gounod's, "Ave Maria," which he dedicates to his dear friend Rosemary Clooney; to my personal favorite, a little ragtime romp in "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," blended with "Let it Snow."

"The Gifts of Christmas"
Heidi Grant Murphy
Koch 7580

In a world that's often cluttered with high tech pomp and circumstance, this recording is pure and simple. Heidi Grant Murphy's crystal clear voice is accompanied by Kevin Murphy's solo piano. Both of these artists come from the world of opera and have been long-time musical partners. In this personal setting, you'll hear rich, familiar Christmas melodies, including a few from the master carol composer John Rutter. While some artists try to disguise favorite carols with newfound arrangements, these are uncluttered and easy to enjoy, yet interesting. The setting is very personal. As you listen a soft blanket of sweet Christmas melodies will curl up around you.

"Merry Christmas – Carols from North America and Europe"
The Vienna Choir Boys, vocals
Koch 7584

I have to admit when I opened this recording I thought I knew exactly what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, there is that traditional sound of the Vienna Choir Boys, yet this holiday recording gives us an even broader look at this historic group, which dates back to the 15th century. All four choirs of the Vienna Choir Boys choirs are represented on this recording. Each group performs favorite carols they learned while on tour. The carols come from all over the globe. Nine of the 21 carols feature new arrangements for the boys' choir and orchestra. One of my favorites is "Sing a Joyful Song of Christmas," by Ronald Kauffman. This tune begins with an intriguing bass line, combined with effective rhythms with canon elements. There's also a delightful duet on the popular carol "Heiligste Nacht," reworked by Michael Haydn. As I listened to their closing carol, "Stille Nacht," I found myself smiling and wishing I had a dance partner. They arrangement is filled with harmonies that hypnotize in waltz time.

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