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Album Review: When Christmas Is Near...
Yelena Eckemoff
Cover image of the album When Christmas Is Near... by Yelena Eckemoff
When Christmas Is Near...
Yelena Eckemoff
2001 / L&H Production
70 minutes
Review by Kathy Parsons
Christmas Is Near... is a fascinating solo piano collection of individual Christmas pieces and medleys. Counting “The Nutcracker Suite” as one piece, there is a total of twenty-seven pieces on this album, most of which are spiritual rather than Santa songs. Very classically inspired, Yelena Eckemoff’s arrangements include jazz touches and a very Russian musical spirit (she was born and trained in Russia). A pianist/composer with incredible playing skills, she shows her sensitivity as well as her bravura technique on this CD more than on some of her other recordings. The album was recorded live, with several takes of each piece to choose from for the final album, giving the music a very open, spontaneous feeling even through Eckemoff doesn’t improvise much in the studio. I really like this collection because many of the arrangements are quite unusual, and the combinations of songs in the medleys are often inventive. I also like that she has included quite a few less commonly-heard songs. I wish the liner notes were more extensive, explaining the origins of some of these songs, but that’s the teacher in me, I think, and it’s a very minor point.

The CD opens with a beautiful and expressive arrangement of “There’s a Song in the Air,” where Eckemoff uses different variations on the theme, some in a classical style and some more contemporary. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is bluesy and very dark - an unusual treatment that makes it sound much newer than its 12th century roots, even as it evolves into a more classical mode. This is one of my favorite Christmas songs, and I really like this arrangement. The medley of “The Holly and the Ivy/We Three Kings/Coventry Carol” combines jazz and classical elements, with the three songs weaving in and out of each other - very colorful and unique. “O LIttle Town of Bethlehem/Away in a Manger/Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” is much quieter and more reflective. I also really like “Patapan/ God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” both minor key pieces that are lively and fun in this arrangement. “Here We Come A-Wassailing/Masters In This Hall” pairs two pieces you don’t often hear and gives them a lovely, dreamy quality. Eckemoff takes the melody in “The First Noel” to places you might not expect, yet keeps the song from straying too far. She does something similar with “Silent Night,” but jazzes it a little, keeping the mood peaceful and serene. The most unusual medley is “Jingle Bells/ It Came Upon the Midnight Clear/ I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day/ O Holy Night.” Featuring some incredibly nimble finger work as well as gentle and heartfelt playing of a more introspective type, this is a tour de force! I was also delighted with her playing of the full “Nutcracker Suite.” Tchaikovsky composed this work on piano before orchestrating it, but you rarely heard it played as a piano solo - love it!

Yelena Eckemoff is an amazing pianist/composer who offers the music world something different from the norm. She combines her classical background with more contemporary elements, producing an art form that is both serious and accessible, but is far from being ear candy. When Christmas Is Near... is available from www.yelenamusic.com and amazon.com. If you prefer Christmas music that is different and substantial, give this one a try!
September 8, 2005
This review has been tagged as:
Holiday Albums
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