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Holiday music gifts: Leave the best for last-minute

Mark Swed
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Music Critic
Times music critic Mark Swed has saved his best selection of CDs for last-minute gift shoppers

I know it's last minute. But to procrastinators, a week until Christmas is all the time in the world. Hanukkah's just begun; fortunately, the holiday has another week to go. And if you've finished your shopping, why not treat yourself? This is the good stuff.

Another "Messiah" recording is rarely news. Still, hearing soprano Lucy Crowe's luminous performance of "Rejoice greatly" on French conductor Emmanuelle Haïm's exquisitely phrased new live performance of Handel's oratorio is more than enough reason to rejoice greatly. Played with period instruments and featuring inspired soloists, this is a "Messiah" that seems to float in air. Haïm's — for once — un-macho "Messiah," with an ethereal "Hallelujah" chorus, is intoxicating.

For those of a more mystically medieval Christmas mind-set, the Hilliard Ensemble's "Transeamus" brings refined, mysterious awe to obscure 15th century British carols and motets. On the other hand, Hanukkah cheer can be found with the New Budapest Orpheum Society's two-disc set, "As Dreams Fall Apart," a survey of Jewish stage and film music from 1925 to 1955, which mixes sentiment and schmaltz with uproarious novelty numbers.

In an era of ephemeral downloads, the best boxed-set collections have come to be the CD equivalent of lavish art books, presenting the scope of an artist's career in a fine package. With "Maria Callas Remastered: The Complete Studio Recordings (1949-1969)," EMI has remastered all of Callas' studio recordings in the best sound they've ever had, making this fabled soprano's theatrical presence more startling than ever. But nice as it is to have all her recordings in the miniature slipcases of the original LPs, the high-resolution downloads available on HD Tracks sound even more vibrant than the CDs.

With his 90th birthday approaching in March, Pierre Boulez is being celebrated with a 13-disc set on DG of the composer’s “Complete Works,” which means much of the most intricate sonically inventive music of our time in the best performances. And then there’s Sony’s 67-CD set of all the recordings of Boulez’s conducting, “The Complete Columbia Album Collection” from released on Columbia in the 1960s and 1970s. Everything sounds as scintillating as ever.Franz Brüggen, the inspiring Dutch early music specialist who died earlier this year, is remembered with "Mozart: The Last Three Symphonies: Live From Rotterdam, 2010," his recording of Mozart's last three symphonies with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century.

Two unusual opera CDs stand out. Darius Milhaud's "L'Orestie d'Eschyle," the French composer's epic early 20th century take on "The Oresteia," has only now been recorded in full, a document of a performance at the University of Michigan last year. Here is a masterpiece finally revealed.

Another item of opera news last year was "Invisible Cities," Christopher Cerrone's new opera based on an Italo Calvino novel and created for an arresting production at Union Station in L.A. The Industry, which commissioned "Invisible Cities," has released a recording in a delightful wooden box that includes postcards of scenes from the production. Once you open the box, it is extremely hard to get everything back in, and the music is the same. It stays with you.

This has been a Richard Strauss year, the 150th anniversary of his birth, and his operas have flooded the market. The one that may matter the most is a DVD of the "Elektra," conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and directed by Patrice Chereau, which reveals Strauss' extraordinary relevance to our time. You might find it interesting to pair it with a more traditional but no less masterful "Elektra" led by Christian Thielemann on CD.

The expansive Christmas spirit asks us to think of others. "Our World in Song" finds Chinese pipa player Wu Man, Hawaiian ukulele player and slack key guitarist Daniel Ho and Cuban percussionist Luis Conte offering their multi-culti versions of folk songs from around the globe. It is irresistible. "Japanese Children Songs," featuring soprano Diana Damrau, with Kent Nagano conducting the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, reveals surprisingly the carol-like quality of these charming ballads.

Then again, you just might be looking for a Christmas escape route. The Seattle Symphony recording of John Luther Adams' "Ocean" is lapping music that takes you out of yourself.

For the daring wishing to lose themselves in a deeper sea of drone, try "Youuu+Mee=Weeee" by quirky keyboardist Charlemagne Palestine and electric guitarist Rhys Chatham. Three CDs worth of the strangest hums and whirrs and whatnots is a full universe away from Christmas commercialized but remarkably close to its original spiritual essence of selflessness.

Twitter: @markswed

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