Richard Nisley

Christmas Treats II
History - World Released - Dec 15, 2014

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (DVD) British, 1951, starring Alastair Sim — Why is this the best “Christmas Carol” ever made? The answer: Alastair Sim. As Ebenezer Scrooge, the unbridled joy he conveys on Christmas morning, after being visited in the night by three spirits, is more than a transformative moment — it’s a miracle. We see a tremendous weight being lifted—the weight of a life lived in pursuit of money, in which everything of lasting value has been sacrificed—love, happiness, and family. And with it comes the realization that he has been given a second chance. Scrooge is so happy he cannot contain himself. He jumps for joy! It’s this moment that Alastair Sim expresses magnificently. Before the three visitations, he conveyed the dark, dour and sour side of Scrooge with perfect villainy. But it is the born-again Scrooge, the man who sees the errors of his way and is chastened, truly chastened—that’s when the film delivers the goods. Scrooge is reborn. Of course, the deal is not complete unless he changes his ways. He must become a giving, loving, and whole human being again. Will he? Can he? Mr. Sim’s characterization is so heartfelt and so genuine that we know Scrooge will become a loving benefactor, not just to Bob Cratchit and his family, but to London’s unfortunates. The narrator tells us this at the closing credits, but we do not need to be told. That’s the magic of this film: we are participants in Scrooge’s transformation; we too become true believers. Alastair Sim is the catalyst that brings this small miracle to fruition. And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!

THE CHRISTMAS SONG (CD) — Nat King Cole's version of "The Christmas Song" is as much a holiday tradition as turkey and pumpkin pie. No one does it better. About the song: the Nat King Cole Trio first recorded "The Christmas Song" for Capitol Record early in 1946. At Cole's behest (and over the objections of studio brass), a second version was recorded the same year utilizing a small string section; this version was a huge hit on both R&B and Pop radio. Cole re-recorded the song again in 1953 and again in 1960, with the same arrangement augmented with a full orchestra. It's the latter version, recorded in 1960, that we hear on radio today and is featured on this CD. Like Frank Sinatra, Cole sang the words, not the melody. But that does not fully explain his magic. There is an innate honesty to the man that comes through. He cannot sing a false note or convey a false emotion. It's that quality that comes through most poignantly on these songs of the season. Listening to Cole, Peace on Earth, and Mercy Mild seems a possibility.

THE NUTCRACKER (CD) — Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without Tchaikovsky's magical Nutcracker. While there are many fine recordings, and everyone has a favorite, the version by Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra has remained in print since it first appeared in stores in 1962. In 1992, the New York Times named this account as their "Favorite Holiday Recording." About the ballet: Tchaikovsky wasn't crazy about the idea of writing dance music for toy soldiers, snowflakes and sugar-plum fairies, but once into the project composed some of his most enchanting melodies ever. The Nutcracker is really two ballets: Act I tells a story without any real human drama, while Act II is a children's gala event, set in the Kingdom of Sweets. Not having to worry about story content actually freed Tchaikovsky, allowing him to indulge his imagination in producing a broad range of orchestral colors. Nine months prior to the ballet's debut, he extracted a suite from the score, which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892. It is in this form, as the Nutcracker Suite, that the most characterful of the dance numbers have attained world-wide popularity. If you're planning a purchase, don't cut yourself short--get the whole “Nut."

MIRACLES (CD) — For a guy who did not want to make a Christmas album, Kenny G hasn't done too badly. “Miracles” is now the biggest selling Holiday album of all time. Smooth jazz suits Christmas music perfectly, and is right in tune with MOR Yuletide favorites by the likes of Bing, Nat, Johnny, Frank, and Andy. But what about fellow jazz phenom Wynton Marsalis? Talk about contrasts. Compare Marsalis' "Crescent City Christmas Card" with "Miracles." It doesn't compute. We love `em both, but as jazz artists, they are worlds apart, as far as the planet Mercury is from Pluto. Kenny G’s brand of cool jazz soothes your frazzled nerves. Marsalis challenges you with cool jazz that has attitude--in your face, at times dissonant, at times bluesy, sometimes funky, never predictable, always fresh. Play them both at your Holiday party, and watch the reaction.

MAGNIFICAT (CD) — J.S. Bach’s setting of the song of the Virgin Mary is one of his most popular and revered vocal scores. But is it Christmas music, as some would have us believe? Well, yes and no. The song had been a part of the Roman Catholic service of Vespers since the liturgy was formalized. Bach composed a new setting for his first Christmas in Leipzig, in 1723, so, in that sense, it is Christmas music. Indeed, the festive character of the music is evident at the beginning, with a joyous first movement, half of which is purely orchestral. In fact, Bach utilized the largest orchestra available to him at the time, to emphasize the grandness of the occasion -- three trumpets, drums, flutes, oboes, bassoons, strings, and organ. The chorus is in five parts, rather than the usual four, with divided sopranos. John Elliot Gardiner's account, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, as always, was meticulously prepared, and is nothing less than outstanding in performance. Play it loud and play it proud this Holiday Season, or any time of the year.

A JOLLY CHRISTMAS (CD) Of Frank Sinatra's three Christmas albums, the middle one, "A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra" is my favorite. The album was cut over the summer of 1957, with grandiloquent Gordon Jenkins as arranger, and released in time for the 1957 Holiday Season. One of the songs, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," was originally written for "Meet Me in St. Louis" and sung by Judy Garland, but had yet to catch on as a Christmas standard. Sinatra would change that. Prior to the first recording session, he asked the composer, Hugh Martin, to make some revisions. “Frank called to ask if I would rewrite the `muddle through somehow' line," recalled the songwriter. He said, "`The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?'" Martin obliged, making several cheerier alternations, shifting the happiness into the present tense, and changing the "muddle through somehow" line to "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." Sinatra's Christmas album went on to great commercial success and the upbeat Sinatra version of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" became a Christmas perennial. Need some Christmas cheer? Sinatra's "A Jolly Christmas" will put zing in your eggnog.

MESSIAH (CD) Like the Christmas tree inside the Grand Hotel, “magnificent” is the word for Handel’s “Messiah.” Usually performed at Christmastime, “Messiah” is as much a piece for Easter as for Christmas. The text draws on both the Old and the New Testament to tell, in compressed form, the story of the life of Christ. Part One includes several of Handel’s most evocative solo numbers and choruses, among them, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” and “For unto us a Child is born.” Part Two contains, notably, “He was despised” and “All we like sheep have gone astray” and concludes with the famed “Hallelujah!” chorus. Part Three begins with one of Handel’s most moving creations, “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and concludes with a triple choral number, “Worthy is the Lamb.” Composed in 1741, “Messiah” has connected with English-speaking peoples in a way no other choral music does. Why is not clear. Perhaps it’s because Handel was writing for the theater and not the church, and therefore was free to use openly theatrical expressions to put the story across with more emotional impact. Whatever the reason, “Messiah” has acquired a universality that is unique in the history of music. The performance by Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra, recorded in 1966, is a classic.

A CHRISTMAS STORY (DVD) — Roger Ebert called it a cross between Norman Rockwell and Mad Magazine. Whatever you call it, at our house “A Christmas Story” never fails to deliver the laughs. While we love Ralphie, the character who puts us in stitches is the father of Ralphie’s dysfunctional family, played by Darren McGavin. There’s (1) his love-hatred relationship with his car. Says Ralphie: “Some men are Baptists, others are Catholics. My father was an Oldsmobile man”; (2) his ongoing battle with the house furnace. “It’s a clinker! That blasted, stupid furnace. Dadgummit! That toot-flurtten rattle-trap!” Comments Ralphie: “In the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know still hangs in space over Lake Michigan”; (3) his ongoing battle with the neighbor’s legion of dogs, that attack only him; and (4) his “major award,” a plastic lamp that comes in the shape of woman’s leg alluringly clothed in fishnet stocking, and becomes a bone of contention between him and his wife. When it arrives--in a huge wooden crate--he mispronounces the label as “FRA-GEE-LEE,” adding, “It must be Italian.” “That’s ‘fragile,’’’ his wife corrects him. She hates the lamp, and later knocks it off a table (“it was an accident,” she pleads) but he knows better. “You were always jealous of that lamp,” he retorts, bitterly.” “Jealous of a plastic leg?” she asks. “Jealous because I won!” he roars. When she tells him they are out of glue, he accuses her of using up all the glue on purpose. “The old man stood quivering with fury,” says Ralphie, “stammering as he tried to come up with a real crusher. All he could get out was . . . Not a finger!” He then dashes off to the store for more glue. Later, when his effort to glue the lamp back together fails, he buries it in the yard. “Now, I could never be sure,” says Ralphie, “but I thought that I heard ‘Taps’ being played . . . gently.” On Christmas morning, his wife drops a thinly wrapped bowling ball on his lap. “I wonder what this could be?” he asks, deadpan. When he opens it, he says with forced joy, “A blue bowling ball. Thank you, darling. Thank you, yes, very much.” When she turns away, he sighs and shakes his head slightly, as if to say, my wife doesn’t understand me at all. Ralphie gets the Red Ryder BB gun he’s been dreaming and scheming to get, and nearly shoots his eye out, as everyone had been predicting he would. Before the closing credits, as night sets in and snow begins to fall, Ralphie drifts off to sleep cradling his beloved Red Ryder BB gun. “It was the greatest Christmas gift I had ever received, or would ever receive.” And, after watching this movie, you may say with us, “A Christmas Story” is the best Christmas movie I have ever seen, or will ever see.”

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