Pros: Does not tire out the ear or bore the pianist. Modern harmonies and pianistic arrangements.
Cons: Some bad or lazy arrangements. Missing a few standards.
Christmas music is about as common a sight in piano benches and in the (seemingly ever-shrinking) sheet music sections of music stores as intermediate lesson books. Most of it is similar to the Big Book of Christmas Songs: playable by someone who had a year or two of piano lessons as a child, without any practice, and sight-readable at a glance, but also extremely dull, both for the pianist and the listener.
Alfred's Christmas Encyclopedia is one of few to break from this pattern, presenting arrangements that demand a little bit from the pianist and are actually, for the most part, pleasant to hear and fun to play. None of them are "advanced" in any meaningful way: a pianist who can play the slow but not the fast movement of Beethoven's "Pathetique" sonata should have no problem here. Maybe "Advanced" means it isn't kids' stuff. Where appropriate, multi-octave arpeggios, chorded melody, and even some counterpoint fill out the sound: these are pianistic arrangements and not merely arrangements for the piano. Mostly to good effect, everything from cover to cover is done in a very modern idiom. I'd call it "jazzy" but that implies Thelonious Monk or Bill Evans and this is clearly not that. Put it somewhere between (early) Debussy and Ramsey Lewis, closer to the former but with lots of sevenths and ninths and altered chords.
It isn't the only such album on the market but at the time of writing is the most common that isn't arranged by Dan Coates. Unlike the Coates collections this one doesn't have lounge-pianist embellishments written in. Whatever's tasteless about it doesn't manifest itself as the cheapening decoration and fake spontanaeity that comes with trying to play cocktail-room piano straight from a chart. Arrangers don't always or usually get obvious credit for their sheet music but like a brand name, here also the arranger--Tom Roed--gets high billing, too. Roed also did the two-volume "Advanced Piano Solos Encyclopedia" and a slew of other arranging for Alfred. If you've seen that, you know what you'll get here: jazz harmony but not fake jazz.
The fifty-piece album is a roughly even mixture of Great American Songbook secular music and the largely nineteenth-century devotional music that came to be considered "traditional." Three novelties made the cut as well: "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" and "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer", as stupid and banal as ever, and a surprisingly pleasant "Christmas Don't Be Late", perhaps proving that Ross Bagdasarian wrote a real classic for his cartoon chipmunks and tape recorder gimmick. The only real surprise is a version of "Christmas Time Is Here" that works for those of us who aren't playing with the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Standout omissions--especially when one considers that "Christmas Mem'ries" and a "new age rendition" of "Patapan" did make the cut-- are "The Christmas Song", "Do You Hear What I Hear", and "O Come O Come Emmanuel".
About that "new age rendition": There are two of those here--the other is of Carol of the Bells--and they both fall flat on their face. Roed's treatment of "Up on the Housetop" is a workout for the pianist in a very bizarre way not worth the time. And "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year" doesn't work well here, because it probably doesn't work as instrumental music at all. Those aside, the worst that can be said about these arrangements is that they're sometimes lazy. For example, "Up on The Housetop" and "Silent Night" both modulate into other keys for a second verse for no particular reason at all. But there's a lot here that makes up for it. For example, "We Three Kings" has dissonances and a slight bit of orientalism taking it beyond the ordinary. And the voicing on "O Holy Night" is fresh, subtle, and altogether beautiful--even in the part where Roed seems deliberately to be borrowing from Debussy's "Clair de Lune".
To sum it up, Alfred's "Christmas Encyclopedia", as a Christmas album full of arrangements that don't get boring as soon as they're played, is a worthwhile addition to a piano bench. It's in no way great, but it's better than most.