Recording Firsts in Time for the Holidays

Starbucks, look out! ArkivMusic is on your tail. Just in time for the holidays, the Internet's major classical-music site has teamed up with the Canadian Brass to create ArkivMusic's first new recording, Christmas Tradition: Music for Brass and Organ. The CD, recorded for the Canadian Brass's own label, Opening Day (ODR 7345), includes music by composers who, over the years, have written some of the ensemble's favorite music and arrangements.

The CD is a pet project of ArkivMusic's founder and president, Eric Feidner, and his twin brother, general manager Jon Feidner, both of whom are brass players. Enamored of the Canadian Brass's classic Christmas arrangements they heard years ago on LP, Jon explains that they felt it was "high time for the Brass to bring those classic arrangements together on a single disc, performed by the latest members of the group. The astonishing technique and unique sound of the Canadian Brass have been remarkably consistent over the years, and today they sound better than ever." The CD was recorded this past August in Toronto, Ontario, in the reputedly exemplary acoustic of Rosedale United Church, whose restored 1914 Casavant pipe organ was played by Eric Robertson.

Yet to be determined is how ArkivMusic's sales of Christmas Tradition will compare with Starbucks' online and store sales of their own Christmas compilation, Stockings by the Fire. The coffee giant's CD features selections by Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Rufus Wainwright, Diana Krall, Herbie Hancock, Aimee Mann, and others. Starbucks may have left the Brass to ArkivMusic, but their new Christmas compilation has broad appeal. Solution: Both can easily fit in an American-size Christmas stocking.

Sticking to the classical realm, Sony BMG Masterworks celebrates the 80th birthday of pianist Leon Fleisher with a special download-only edition of a commemorative anthology, The Essential Leon Fleisher. Preceding the store release of the 2-CD set (Sony BMG 888880381033) by five weeks, the download includes several tempting, exclusive bonus tracks: the first digital release in any format of Fleisher's 1963 recording with the Juilliard String Quartet of Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op.34, as well as the original recording of his long-unavailable piano transcription of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."

Not to be outdone, the CD version includes the first digital release of the opening movement of the Schubert Sonata in B-flat Major, D.960, from Fleisher's first recording for Columbia Masterworks in 1954, when he was 27; and the Scherzo movement from the same Brahms Piano Quintet available in its entirety via download. Fleisher has since re-recorded both works digitally; the Schubert appears on his Two Hands (Vanguard 1551); the Brahms is featured in a 2007 release with the Emerson String Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon 000871802). While Sony BMG does not yet have plans to release the complete first recordings of those works on CD, Sony BMG Masterworks' vice-president of media relations, explains that they hope to do more with Fleisher's catalog "down the road."

Fleisher's late career comeback, after a neurological affliction known as focal dystonia forced him to focus solely on works for the left hand for almost 40 years, is cause for celebration. Regardless of whether he is truly America's greatest living pianist, as some have claimed, his musical mastery is beyond reproach. Definite stocking-stuffing material.