Mannheim Steamroller,
(American Gramaphone, 1984)

The synth-heavy version of "Deck the Halls" which begins Christmas, Mannheim Steamroller's first holiday album, could well turn some potential fans away from the band. For, while Mannheim Steamroller does its share of electronic music (including one additional track on this album and plenty of tracks on the band's ongoing Fresh Aire series), Christmas is more about holiday traditions amid a whirlwind European tour than it is about modern electronics.

Witness the next track, "We Three Kings of Orient Are," which uses recorder, oboe and strings to create a classic Yuletide sound. The recorder and strings also bring a lovely lullaby feeling to the 17th century French carol, "Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella." "The Coventry Carol," an English tune dating back to the 1400s, gains a courtly air through its guitar and harpsichord arrangement.

Then "Good King Wenceslas," an English carol about a Bohemian king and based on an old Swedish melody, gets similar treatment as the Welsh classic, "Deck the Halls," did earlier. The disco-pop synthesizer is fun the first few times you hear it, but it doesn't have the staying power of the other tracks. It's a relief to sink back into a minstrel sound with the lively renaissance style of the English "Wassail, Wassail." The French tune "Carol of the Birds" sticks with the renaissance theme, using recorders to represent birds and underscoring their song with gorgeous, intricate strings and harpsichord. Then it's back to England to reconstruct a lyrical version of "I Saw Three Ships."

There are two arrangements of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" here. The first is lovely and detailed, putting pieces of guitar, recorder, violin and string ensemble together like a jigsaw puzzle to create a wholely unique rendition. The second is sweeping and majestic, using horns to give it a fuller, grander sound and adding enough bits of percussion and electric keyboards to give it a modern flair.

The jewel in the crown is the final track, "Stille Nacht (Silent Night)," a German carol dating to 1818. Beginning with a nonverbal sample by a soft male chorus and piano, the tune slips into a beautiful arrangement featuring the violin, backed up by oboe, horn and keyboards.

Mannheim Steamroller is Chip Davis, for all intents and purposes. He arranged, conducted and produced Christmas, and played a variety of instruments, including percussion, recorders and hammered dulcimer, plus vocals.

Other performers include Jackson Berkey on harpsichord, clavichord and several additional keyboards, Eric Hansen on lute and bass, Ron Cooley on classical and 12-string guitars, Steve Shipps on violin, David Kappy on French horn, David Low on cello, Mary Walter on harp, Willis Ann Ross on flute and Bobby Jenkins on oboe.

Combined, they pack a whole lot of music into a scant 33 minutes -- the album seems much longer than it is and, truly, should occupy a fair amount of your holiday music time.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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