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CD Review: Henry Doktorski
A Classical Christmas

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Total Time: 67:32
Released in 1993

label: Alanna Records
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To listen to music excerpts from this CD, Click Here.

Henry Doktorski, accordion, conductor, arranger
The Pittsburgh Chamber Orchestra

with special guests:
Huei-Sheng Kao, violin
Gretchen Van Hoesen, harp


  • Capriccio on "Twelve Days of Christmas"
  • Hymn: Ave Maria - Bach/ Gounod
  • Two Part Canon: We Wish You a Merry Christmas
  • Prelude and Toccata on "Good Christian Men, Rejoice" - J.S.Bach
  • Nocturne: Silent Night
  • Farandole: March of the Three Kings - Georges Bizet
  • Berceuse: Away in a Manger
  • Jazz Fantasia on "Carol of the Bells"
  • Theme and Variations on "Coventry Carol"
  • Minuet: Dance of the Angels
  • Suite on Four Polish Carols
    • Przybiezeli do Betlejem
    • Lulajze Jezuniu
    • Dzisiaj w Betlejem
    • Gdy Sie Chrystus Rodzi
  • Ayre: What Child is This
  • Gigue: Dance of the Shepherds
  • Sonatina on Three Christmas Carols
    • O Thou Joyful Day
    • It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
    • Angels We Have Heard on High
  • Serenade: Sleep, Baby Jesus
  • Chorale and Dance on "Jingle Bells"

Review by Rev. George David Exoo:

For me this album's real treasure lies in the imaginative arrangements of traditional carols and the delightful original compositions by the multi-talented architect of this album. Creator Henry Doktorski displays his genius as composer, arranger, conductor and performer in this tapestry of old and new Christmas carols, where each piece exhibits a high degree of originality, cleverness and solid musical craft.

Especially intriguing are Doktorski's three original compositions. Consider the most ethereal, the serenade, "Sleep, Baby Jesus," which was written for harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen. Doktorski composed this hauntingly simple melody in only fifteen minutes, then arranged it for harp, accordion, string bass and glockenspiel on the day before the recording session. Why the hurry? At the time he had only three pieces for harp and he wanted one more to take advantage of union regulations governing time limits for recording artists. Here is delightful proof that it is possible even for bureaucracy to drive the muse of music, Polyhymnia, into action.

Equally persistent in memory is the minuet, "Dance of the Angels," which invites the company of heaven to the dance with a lilting but mystical perfect fifth. Doktorski wrote this piece for a ballet scene in his opera, "Journey to the City of God," which is based on John Bunyan's famous book, "Pilgrim's Progress."

The last of the three original carols is the strongly rhythmic gigue, "Dance of the Shepherds," which is spiced by the flavor of twentieth-century quartal and quintal harmonies. This piece first appeared a song for soprano and piano with lyrics from William Blake's poem "Dancing Down the Valleys Wild."

It is, of course, the singability of carols that make them perennially enduring year after year. The melodic beauty of Doktorski's compositions recalls Ralph Vaughan Williams' memorable comment on atonal music: "And just what's wrong with a good tune?" I believe these new carols are destined to become as much a part of future Christmases as "Gesu Bambino" or the "Pat a Pan."

Of the arrangements of familiar carols, "Jingle Bells" is particularly striking. In 1857 James Pierpont wrote the tune for a Sunday school class. Doktorski introduces the piece with a somber maestoso in the Baroque style. Suddenly a trivial antebellum Southern pot boiler becomes a serious piece of concert music, yet droll in its musical irony, especially so when the dance in five part counterpoint begins.

Other arrangements will live in memory like the jazzy "Carol of the Bells," with its distinctive sound in the development section created by the German sixth chord. Doktorski's transcription of the Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria" evokes angelic feelings through the lucidity of a rich tremolo on the solo accordion, delicately with a molto espressivo solo violin beautifully played by Huei-Sheng Kao.

Most intriguing for listeners will be the album's inclusion of four Polish carols arranged for accordion and string quartet. These lucid pieces evoke images of romantic nineteenth-century Warsaw: cobblestone streets, horses and wagons, candlelight, and siedem potraw—the traditional Polish Christmas eve dinner—as well as the simple joys of family Christmases in rural homes. Doktorski wrote this suite in tribute to his Polish heritage and as a Christmas gift to his father and mother, who, he admitted, "sometimes had to use firm measures to make me practice the accordion when I was a little boy."

Doktorski tells the story of the origin of the imaginative arrangements: "I visited the largest music store in Pittsburgh and asked for Christmas music. Not just any ordinary arrangements of Christmas music, however. I wanted something interesting, something exciting, something contrapuntal, something intellectually stimulating like the music of my favorite composer, J.S. Bach.

"I searched in the piano department, the organ and choral department, the brass department and the strings department. But although the store had hundreds of arrangements of Christmas music, none of them, I felt, were really what I was looking for. After many hours of reading through music scores, sheet music and anthologies, I sadly left the store and returned to my car.

"Just then, a conscientious store employee ran out into the parking lot shouting and waving a book in his hand, "We found something you might like," he panted. "Look at this!"

"I glanced through the book, entitled "Christmas Holiday" and immediately was delighted beyond my wildest expectations. Here was an anthology of superb arrangements of Christmas music—tasteful, artistic, and in a contrapuntal style. One of the carols was arranged as a two-part invention, another with Alberti basses, another as a canon at the octave, another as a theme and variations. My search had ended!

"I turned to the cover and eagerly sought the name of the master craftsman who had written such interesting arrangements and saw the name: Dr. Willard A. Palmer, the same author of my first accordion method book which I had studied some thirty years ago!

"In this recording I have expanded some of Dr. Palmer's scores and included several of my own. I then orchestrated the pieces for accordion, harp, piano, strings, winds and percussion. The result is I hope a tasteful and musical presentation of Christmas music which will delight and uplift the spirit in all of us."

The most distinctive feature of these arrangements, besides their clever twists of musical speech, is the use of the accordion as the principal instrument. The instrument heard in this recording is a free-bass accordion. The free-bass left hand manual enables the artist to perform difficult contrapuntal music with both hands up to a range of seven octaves. Listen to the accordion solos. Bach's "Prelude and Toccata" is a fine example which displays the virtuosity of the concert accordion. Note for note, it is an exact literal transcription of a work originally written for pipe organ.

"A Classical Christmas" is a handsomely inspired traditional treat and will receive many spins in your compact disc player, not just during Christmastide, but throughout the calendar year.

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