Mannheim Steamroller – ‘Christmas Extraordinaire’ A DVD-Audio review by Stuart M. Robinson

The holiday season is upon us once again and the time has come to investigate some of the festive music available on DVD-Audio, a prominent example of which is the subject of this review.

Christmas Extraordinaire’ is the fourth seasonal disc from Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller (the first being released in 1983) and therefore has a lot to live up to, the previous works having long-since been entrenched in the ‘Christmas classics’ section of many music collections the world over.

If you’re not familiar with Chip Davis’ work, he’s easily summed up as the archetypal one-man-band; he plays as many instruments as he can lay his hands on, composes (although not for this disc), arranges, conducts and produces. Not one single facet of a Mannheim Steamroller disc manages to escape a creative massaging from the man himself.

For this particular disc however, Davis has called upon the assistance of some accomplished musicians; the assembled hoards of the Soli Deo Gloria Consortium, The University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club and the voice of Christmas himself, Mr. Johnny Mathis. The album was recorded as a 24-bit 96kHz project at a number of venues including Chicago, Burbank and in the Hill Auditorium, University of Michigan, for presentation as a surround DVD-Audio disc and two-channel HDCD encoded CD.

Which brings us to the first really positive aspect of the whole package; a measly $25 (list price) buys you a double-sided DVD disc and bundled within the same case, a CD too, which inflates the supplementary material score. Every possible listening scenario is therefore taken care of – DVD-Video folks get two-channel Dolby Digital at 224kb/s (an unusual data rate to say the least) together with multi-channel Dolby Digital at 448kb/s and DTS at 1509.75kb/s, whilst those who are DVD-Audio equipped can enjoy a dedicated 96kHz 24-bit PCM two-channel mix or multi-channel MLP of an equivalent resolution. No DVD player in the car or kitchen? Then that’s what the CD is for (it would be cynical of me to suggest you could also find an empty Jewel case and give it away as a pre-Christmas gift).

The music itself, and the performances for that matter, are diverse, thanks largely to the way they were selected – via an American Gramaphone web site poll, no less. Chip imparts his unique arranging style to pieces that span the centuries, from the traditional New Year anthem that is ‘Auld Lang Syne’, written by Scottish poet Robert Burns in the latter half of the eighteenth century, to contemporary classics such as ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ and the inevitable, unavoidable ‘White Christmas’. There are more unusual tracks too, including the traditional Spanish carol ‘Fum, Fum, Fum’ and the lesser-known ‘Some Children See Him’.

Perhaps the biggest shocks to the system, especially if you’re a staunch traditionalist, are the arrangements of ‘Hallelujah’ from Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and what is essentially a funk version of ‘Faeries’ from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’. However, if you don’t enjoy the way they’ve been spruced-up for this release, you’re also likely to be the sort of person who mumbles “bah, humbug” throughout the entire Christmas period because the new arrangements are both inventive and good fun.

Musically ‘Christmas Extraordinare’ is a strange beast, being a mixture of synthesised and acoustic instruments. What’s particularly odd is that tracks such as ‘Halleluja’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’ are predominantly electronic, even to the point of imitating ‘real’ instruments, when later pieces have an obvious and deliberate orchestral leaning. The weirdest thing of all however, is how such an odd-couple concoction results in what really is an outstanding Christmas album. Even my own mother who was, ahem, given a CD copy, went out of her way to commend the disc. If I recall correctly, the word she used was “lovely”, which coming from someone who never usually ventures outside the world of grand opera or Elvis Presley (yes, I know) is praise indeed.

The multi-channel mix is lively, but not detrimentally so. Instruments have been spread around to the sides of the room but never become distracting while the centre channel is used sparsely, to the point of being almost completely silent during some tracks. I couldn’t help but feel that Johnny Mathis’ ‘O Tannenbaum’ lead vocal would have been more open and distinct had he been positioned dead centre rather than as a phantom L/R image.

The mix has one distracting element however, that being the overly forward cymbals and hi-hat. Across both multi-channel and two-channel versions, they tended to drag my attention away from the remainder of the music and into the front right corner of the room, not just because of their repetitive nature (more electronic samples perhaps?), but primarily down to their relative level; ‘Silver Bells’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’ suffering the worst. In comparison, the presentation of ‘Away in a Manger’ boasts a beautiful, finely balanced mixture of guitars and recorders.

Disc fidelity is, on the whole, excellent, with only a few minor causes for concern. Electronic elements are clearly discernable and it is frighteningly easy to tell them apart from ‘real’ instruments, such is the fidelity on offer. Chip Davis is credited as playing “recorder and drums”, but many of the percussion elements have a definite synthesised character, tom drums especially. If an electronic drum kit wasn’t used (and there is no way of telling from the liner notes), then the percussion’s artificial tone is one of the few aspects of below-par fidelity that count against the disc as a whole. If it was an electronic drum kit by design, then it’s not up to the scrutiny of DVD-Audio and someone should buy Chip a real set of drums for Christmas.

My other quibble is with the sound of the bells at the beginning and end of ‘Fum, Fum, Fum’ where minor amounts of harmonic distortion can be heard (especially when compared to the pure bells of Silverline’s ‘Ziroq’ disc, for example). This is unlikely to be the result of audible watermarking as the same problems can be identified on the CD-DA disc, just not to the same degree.

Otherwise the DVD-Audio disc holds up really well under close inspection and even the lossy Dolby Digital and DTS versions on the flip side afford a great way to impart some seasonal cheer, albeit with a slight sense of dynamic range compression. The MLP bass is deep and strong, vocal elements clear while orchestral passages impart a sense of depth and space.

Supplementary material is identical on both faces of the disc; it includes two short trailers for the ‘Christmas Live’ and ‘Christmas Angel’ DVDs, a selection of DVD music pieces (to showcase the ‘Ambience’ series of discs), an excerpt from ‘Fresh Aire 8’ and a passage promoting the ‘Home Theatre Demo’ DVD-Audio disc previously featured here at High Fidelity Review. Completing the collection are American Gramaphone’s ‘Comet’ system test and a five-minute behind-the-scenes video montage of the disc’s production.

Christmas Extraordinare’ is available from a limited number of outlets, although it can be found within the web sites of major on-line retailers such as ($20) or DVD-Empire ($18.74), see side-bar. Alternatively, one can place an order direct from American Gramaphone who also offer a selection of gift packs that encompass both DVD-Audio and CD versions of the disc.

As seasonal albums go, ‘Christmas Extraordinaire’ is most certainly a winner. Chip Davis, and I’m not exactly sure how, has managed to breathe new life into the majority of the tracks on this disc, resurrecting otherwise tired old stalwarts such as ‘White Christmas’. That alone means the disc is worth recommending, but factor in the commendable standard of recording fidelity and the sensible, involving surround mix and what results is a DVD-Audio disc to enjoy for many years to come.