CD Review: CHRISTMAS TOGETHER (The Piano Guys)

by Tony Frankel on November 30, 2017

in CD-DVD,Music

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CHRISTMAS MUSIC OUTSIDE OF THE BOX

All it took was one spin for me to appreciate The Piano Guys’ second Noel album, Christmas Together. Oddly enough, when I recommended it to a few friends, they hadn’t heard of this amazing quartet. For those who don’t know, there’s only one main pianist in the bunch (though they’ve all played the ivories in one of their many videos), and that’s John Schmidt, who is also a songwriter; two more are also songwriters – Steven Sharp Nelson (cellist) and Al van der Beek (vocals, producer); the other producer is also the group’s videographer, Paul Anderson, who can be credited with the fact that The Piano Guys’ fifty-plus music videos have gone off-the-map viral on YouTube.

And while I admit it’s a schlocky name, this isn’t Muzak. This ingenious, talented outfit takes songs, many of which we have heard over and over to the point of nausea, mixes them up with astounding musicianship and creativity, and delivers a fresh take on holiday chestnuts that aren’t only well-produced beyond belief, but mesmerizing (there is also a DVD version which shows how the enchantment is designed).

The opening track is a mind-boggling rendition (arranged with Marshall McDonald) of “Angels We Have Heard on High” called “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” Arranged like a mystical, mysterioso John Williams score, we get lovely solo vocals by Peter Hollens and David Archuleta, and the commanding, jaw-dropping sweep of none less than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and orchestra, which executes the tinkling instruments with tenderness and magic.

Accompanied by a soft background of chirping crickets, Nelson shows off his cello virtuosity both electric and acoustic on the rarely covered “Mary, Did You Know” a 1991 country tune by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene. The kicker is that it melds with Corelli’s 1714 Concerto grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No. 8, also known as the Christmas Concerto. So seamless is this medley, that one would never guess these works were written almost three centuries apart.

Also refreshing is the lack of pretension and bombast: Schmidt and Nelson show why their skills got them to this point — a lyrical blend of new age, classical and lullaby create an atmospheric bittersweet tenderness in “What Child Is This” (the boys don’t use question marks in their titles for some reason). Even the jazzy harmonic vocals don’t overtake van der Beek’s gentle but accelerating pop interpretation “Gloria” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, done in a another medley. Close your eyes, and let J.S. Bach’s carol “O Little One Sweet” cleanse your soul; the sense here — aided by a light reverb — is like the inside of a church (it also helps to have THE The King’s Singers and Nelson on Baroque cello). Also saintly is “Silent Night, Holy Night,” given a supple treatment from the Los Angeles Opera’s Music Director and tenor-turned-baritone Plácido Domingo.

I can understand the phenomenon of The Piano Guys: In one sense, they are breaking boundaries with beauty and love (the men are practicing Mormons), yet much of the music falls squarely in the 80s’ New Age and Pop sound, exemplified in the final two tracks, original compositions featuring cello and piano: The sweet and stirring, lyric-free “The Manger”; and Craig Aven’s gentle, tender song, “The Sweetest Gift”, which offers Christian solace to those who have lost a loved one. But not all is light, thank goodness. “Little Drummer Boy” and “Do You Hear What I Hear” — two of the most covered songs in the canon — are given a rhythmic North-African flavor; and “I Saw Three Ships” gets a magnificent Gallic, George Winston-esque dancing flavor from Schmidt.

Some stuff borders dangerously close to being precious, but then there’s the angelic Lexi Walker, with her crystalline voice sounding miraculously like an innocent boy soprano, offering “Ave Maria” with “O Holy Night”; accompanied by piano and cello, it offers that kind of achingly beautiful peace that instigates reflection, both secular and religious. And can’t the world use that right now?

photos courtesy of Sony Music Masterworks

Christmas Together
The Piano Guys
Sony Music Masterworks / Portrait
12 tracks | 47:07 | 2017
released October 27, 2017
available at Amazon and iTunes

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