Mannheim Steamroller,
A Fresh Aire Christmas
(American Gramaphone, 1988)

Mannheim Steamroller's second holiday album, A Fresh Aire Christmas, begins with a majestic horn arrangement, giving the modern tune "Hark! The Herald Trumpets Sing" the kind of treatment its name implies. The logical follow-up, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," gives the 18th century German carol a modern, electronic feel.

That diverse couplet helps define the kind of variety I've come to expect from any Mannheim Steamroller album. And the versatile band doesn't disappoint here, proceeding directly into a Gregorian chant version of "Veni Veni (O Come O Come Emanuel)," using the renowned Cambridge Singers and a handful of handbells to give it an authoritative air.

"The Holly and the Ivy," an ancient once-pagan French tune, uses a solo recorder and a string ensemble to great effect before "The Little Drummer Boy," a modern American carol, slips back into the electronic realm for a merry, toy-like rendition. Then "Still, Still, Still," an Austrian carol, gets a traditional choral performance, again using the Cambridge Singers. Then the band moves on to Germany for a grand brass arrangement of "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming."

"In dulci Jubilo" keeps Mannheim Steamroller in Germany, returning the band to the renaissance style which so dominated the earlier Christmas CD, using the harpsichord, strings and bells as a musical time machine. A beautiful symphonic arrangement of the English favorite "Greensleeves (What Child is This?)" is followed by an electrically charged version of the Ukranian "Carol of the Bells."

The album winds down with a Chip Davis original, "Traditions of Christmas," which is gentle and sweet but isn't destined to become a holiday favorite any time soon. The closing piece is an excellent interpretation of "Cantique de Noel (O Holy Night)," which matches the spirit and style of the preceding album's "Stille Nacht (Silent Night)." The popular French carol is given a delicate, gorgeous treatment here.

Chip Davis once again has arranged, conducted and produced the holiday album, on which he plays percussion and winds. The Mannheim Steamroller ensemble has changed slightly since last time: Jackson Berkey on keyboards, Eric Hansen on lute, Ron Cooley on classica guitar, Bob Jenkins on oboe, Willis Ann Ross on flute, Mary Walter on harp, Steven Shipps and Arnie Roth on violins, and John Sharpe and David Low on cellos.

They're joined by an array of musicians making up the Cambridge Singers, the Antiphonal Brass Choir, the Herald Trumpets, the Studio Brass and a large string orchestra.

Although A Fresh Aire Christmas doesn't quite hit the high mark of excellence and individuality set by Christmas, it's a very near miss indeed. It definitely deserves a slot in any music and holiday lovers collection.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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