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Reviews of “Have Yourself a Merry Cello Christmas”

Martin: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; Traditional: O Holy Night!; Away in a Manger; We Three Kings / What Child Is This? Go Tell It on the Mountain; It Came upon a Midnight Clear; The First Noel; God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen; Angels We Have Heard on High; Silent Night; Lloyd Webber: Jesus Christ Superstar: I Don’t Know How to Love Him; Wells: Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire; Simone: Little Drummer Boy

Fanfare

Fanfare reviews copyright © 2018 by Fanfare, Inc. Used by permission.

CD cover

Heard in an imaginative variety of scorings, the Christmas songs and carols heard here all share the constant of the expressive cello of James Kreger. In the recording sessions Kreger not only had the melodic line on his music but deliberately had the words above each line, so that the sentiments could shade his playing, a strategy that appears to have paid off in spades.

While Kreger may be more associated with the core cello repertoire … this reveals a more personal side. As he says, the Christmas songs represent who he is, and along with that comes a wish to “maximize their beauty” as well as to “bring out their unexpected qualities.” For example, behold the jazz swing of Go Tell It on the Mountain, with the harmonica solo of William Galison taking us to country music territory (Galison riffs on the cello lines of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, too); and how fascinating it is to have a bass clarinet break here (Andrew Sterman) as opposed to a more traditional B♭ clarinet. The track listing might imply blanket coziness, but in fact the territory is varied.

One of the longer tracks is the two-tune medley of We Three Kings and What Child Is This?, a rather nice combination (note particularly the woodwind counterpoints to Kreger’s line). The joy of Kreger’s melodies, here and elsewhere, lies in his “endless bow”: The tunes seem to go on forever in the most seamless legato.

Lloyd Webber’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is not particularly associated with Christmas in my book, but then again my experience with Lloyd Webber is limited. It does indeed begin in a very different way from its surrounding tracks, immediately transporting us to a very different (and admittedly individual) world. It is a relief, though, to return to the somewhat more sophisticated woodwind beginning of The First Noel, that scoring a lovely touch by arranger Ned Paul Ginsburg before the purity of the statement of the theme. In fact all of the arrangements exude class and imagination: Who would have thought that God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen would begin with a ruminative, low solo cello before heading off capriciously with extended, playful pizzicato? One of those “unexpected qualities” Kreger refers to, no doubt....

As an ex-horn player, I did find Kreger’s statement that there is something “God-like” about this instrument really quite fascinating. He is, in saying that, paying homage to the artistry of Patrick Milando, whose solo in O Holy Night is indeed eloquent, if slightly recessed in the sound picture.

If the energetic arrangement of Little Drummer Boy robs the song of some of its poignancy, the intimacy of the closing Silent Night is perfectly judged. This is a lovely collection of heartwarming, superb arrangements that is also a beautiful and unexpected way to channel the talent of James Kreger.

— Colin Clarke

The cello is a singing instrument—perhaps because it plays in the tenor clef, its voice reminds us emotionally of the range of operatic tenors, although its warmth is distinctly feminine, to my ears at least. Thanks to acclaimed soloists like Mischa Maisky, who pioneered albums where the cello adapts the role of a Lieder singer, an entire genre sprang up. Here the highly accomplished American cellist James Kreger goes beyond cello-plus-piano, surrounding himself with an ensemble of first-rate musicians in arrangements of 13 familiar Christmas songs, including pop, spiritual, and traditional carols.

In a personal booklet note Kreger generously gives credit to each musician by name with a brief sketch of his abilities. It needs reminding that this country boasts astonishing musicians working mostly anonymously in the studio. Andrew Sterman, for example, appears here on clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano recorder, flute, bass flute, and piccolo (he also performs on soprano saxophone, but maybe his suitcase was full). Kreger himself, who is a member of the Met Orchestra, muses on how a performer whose career is dedicated to Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Brahms (to name a few composers whose cello music he has recorded and been reviewed in Fanfare) came to make a Christmas album.

The answer comes back to song and Kreger’s childhood memories of singing carols; to that end, the cello is limited here to the melody without variation except for a rare descant. If you needed an extra reason for buying a CD with a short total timing, you can use it karaoke-like to sing along. The creative side of the collection went to arranger/orchestrator Ned Paul Ginsburg. He has fluidly adapted the ensemble to suit the character of each song—hints of a cocktail lounge in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” ragtime in “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and folk in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” That last song, from Jesus Christ, Superstar, isn’t associated with Christmas, but it fits in nicely given the sounds of Broadway one often hears in these arrangements. The recorded sound is close-up and well engineered to capture each instrumental color.

Because there are no technical challenges, the key to success in this genre is a beautiful singing line from the cellist, and Kreger provides one with warmth and moving simplicity. I prefer Christmas albums where the purity of beloved carols like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Silent Night” comes through intact, and where the classical origin of Adam’s “O Holy Night” is respected. Kreger and friends live up to both, which makes this release warmly recommended.

— Huntley Dent