Friday, November 28, 2014

50 Great Christmas Records

It would be easy, after nearly forty years of collecting, to become jaded about Christmas music on record. How many different performances of Howells' A Spotless Rose, Tavener's Little Lamb, or Britten's Hymn to the Virgin does one really need after all? Notwithstanding the voluminousness of the repertory, a certain amount of overlap--unavoidable redudantcy-- is inevitable in a large collection. And yet, a genuine enthusiast's ear is always attuned to the new, the unusual, the recently-rediscovered, or, if not the seldom-heard, at least the freshly reinterpreted. The novel, the rare and the esoteric often hide, unheard alongside the ten-thousandth re-issued boy-choir rendition of Silent Night or Adeste Fidelis, and it can be hard to sort out among so many diverse packagings, many designed not to appeal to the serious collector, but to the casual consumer in search of holiday background music--not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.

I have tried to include recordings where repertory is more important than artist. It is a practice of long-standing for the major labels to release seasonal albums by their most popular performers, usually featuring slick crossover arrangements of the best-known traditional carols and popular songs. Granted, many classical artists do this sort of thing very well, and yet one is almost always reminded of the overriding commercial considerations of the project when the guest-superstars, the virtuosity for its own sake, the schmaltz and Hollywood razzle-dazzle are inevitably brought to the fore. For this reason, as much as I like and enjoy The King's Singers, James Galway, Kiri Te Kanawa, Bryn Terfel or any number of other great musicians, their records are not included here--and, in any case, are very easy for anyone to find.

I have also tried, where possible, to limit this list to albums and compositions that are dedicated exclusively to Christmas. There are hundreds of outstanding records which may incidentally include one or two works specific to Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany; choral anthologies and dedicated surveys of individual composers' ouvres are particularly rich sources for such works, but, for our present purposes, there are simply too many of these to track down, organize or list in any  semblance of manageable order. Further, there are a number of well-known compositions with strong seasonal associations which are not essentially specific to Christmas, and have thus been excluded from consideration. Handel's Messiah, for example, could just as easily be associated with Easter; J.S. Bach's Magnificat in D BWV 243 is not a Christmas work per se, though the E-major version BWV 243a with its charming Christmas interpolations certainly is (c.f. #40).  Respighi's Journey of the Magi from Three Boticelli Pictures is a beautiful work with its haunting echoes of Veni, Veni Emmanuel, but it is only part of a triptych that also includes two movements having nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas. I would dearly love to include Richard Addinsel's suite from the classic 1950 film Scrooge, Stravinsky's brilliant re-working of Bach's Canonic Variations on Von Himmel hoch, Zoltan Kodaly's Veni, Veni Emmanuel for a cappella chorus, or the Angelus ad Virginem movement from Sir Michael Tippett's Suite on the Birthday of Prince Charles, but these would amount to a listing of highlights and snippets, and none or few of these are presently to be found on a strictly Christmas-themed album.

To be sure, this discography is not intended to be exhaustive or all-inclusive in a field where a mere fifty titles barely begins to scratch the surface. (You'll find that there are actually far more than fifty on this list.) It is, nonetheless, an attempt at highlighting some of the hidden gems of the seasonal repertory, those beautiful, imaginative, moving works and superlative recordings that wait to be discovered like a marvelous and unforgettable Christmas gift.


LP: Pearl SHE-581 (1981)
Miracle in Bethlehem: Carols of Germany and England
The Halsey Singers
Lewis Halsey

[Not to be confused with the 1997 album of the same name on the Somm label (SOMMCD 211) which includes Halsey leading many of the same arrangements, this long-forgotten LP offers warmly heartfelt performances of mostly-familiar carols. The program (including the title piece) features several arrangements of seasonal songs by the 20th-century German light-music composer Lenny Timmermann, and it is clear that Halsey had great affection for this music. Halsey's own sensitive, gossamer arrangement of Stille Nacht is among the album's many delights. If one absolutely must own this repertory, the Somm disc will do in a pinch.]

CBC SMCD 5055 (1986)
Welcome Yule!
Elmer Eisler Singers
Elmer Eisler

[Still available as an MP3 download--but good luck finding a copy of the long out-of-print CD-- Elmer Eisler, in his time Canada's preeminent choral director, leads a marvelous program artfully blending the familiar with the highly unusual. The album includes many fascinating virtually never-heard pieces by Canadian composers along with a few truly rare carols found nowhere else. The arrangements are surprisingly and often refreshingly modern-sounding whether a cappella or with organ, brass and oboe-solo accompaniments.]

Naxos 8.553998 (1996)
Danske julesalmer og sange
(Danish Christmas Hymns and Songs)
Musica Ficta
Bo Holten

[Simple, beautiful music, perfectly suited to the warm, introspective mood of the season. Includes outstanding works by two of Denmark's greatest and best-known composers, Gade and Nielsen, along with a surprisingly deep and rich selection of music from many less-familiar names. Essential!]

Philips 462-050-2 (1998)
Eloquence (Decca) 480 6553 (2012 re-issue)
Once As I Remember (The Story of Christmas Based on the Springhead Christmas Play)
Monteverdi Choir
John Eliot Gardiner

[Sweetly sung, beautifully recorded, wide-ranging in mood and style, from John Gardner's gravely moving Entry of the Three Kings, to the light, diverting anonymous round, Jolly Shepherds, this treasurable disc offers some delightful moments of discovery.]

Telarc CD-80377 (1994)
Songs of Angels: Christmas Hymns and Carols
Robert Shaw Chamber Singers
Robert Shaw

[Most of these arrangements were made by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker in the 1950s and subsequently recorded by the Robert Shaw Chorale for RCA-Victor (Gold Seal 6429-2-RG (1987 re-issue)) with enormous commercial success. With the wonderfully-lively exception of the Mexican carol Hacia Belen va un borrico, there's very little off the beaten track in this program; but the sonics are superb, and if you love these particular arrangements, this album is definitely for you. Songs of Angels was followed up three years later with Angels On High (Telarc CD-80461). Venturing only

slightly further afield than Songs of Angels; the later album includes very fine readings of Morton Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium as well as Britten's ubiquitous Hymn to the Virgin and A Ceremony of Carols with one or two interesting surprises thrown in for good measure.]

Telarc CD-80202 (1989)
Carols Around the World
Quink Vocal Ensemble

[Featuring some very interesting, virtually-never-heard repertory, this album may nonetheless not be everyone's cup of Christmas punch. Quink's sound can be something of an acquired taste, especially for those used to the colors of a sweet, homogeneously blended ensemble; the female voices seem somewhat reedy and at times, quavering, while the men evince an over-bright (and occasionally overpowering) vocal quality. Yet, performances of two Dutch carols by Julius Rontgen, a ravishingly lovely (and gorgeously blended) reading of Carlos Guastavino's  Cancion de Navidad, and the tour-de-force virtuosity of Heinz Werner Zimmermann's Es ist ein Kind geboren might well charm even the most stony-hearted of skeptics.]

Hyperion CDA 66925 (1996)
Helios CDH 55216 (2005 re-issue)
O Magnum Mysterium
A sequence of twentieth-century carols and Sarum chant
Stephen Layton

[Includes (for once) all three of Herbert Howell's Carol Anthems as well as beautiful works by Kenneth Leighton (one of the most shamefully overlooked modern British composers), Richard Rodney Bennet, and Peter Warlock. The recorded sound is somewhat detached, and conductor Layton's tempi can, at times, seem almost manically over-hurried.]

Harmonia Mundi HMU 907410 (2006)
A New Joy: Orthodox Christmas
(Music from Estonia, Russia, Ukraine)
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Paul Hillier

[This album is a revelation of great beauty and spiritual profundity. Even here, there are one or two familiar pieces (Carol of the Bells, Tchaikovsky's Legend), but most of this repertory will be completely (and excitingly) new to listeners in the West. The recorded sound is first-rate, and the choir is superb. Highly recommended!]

Harmonia Mundi HMG 501794 (2009 re-issue)
Stille Nacht: German Carols
RIAS Chamber Choir
Uwe Gronostay

[This all-German choral program prominently features music of Max Reger and a few lesser-known composers. There is a certain dry, stylistic sameness to the music, which seldom rises to the level of exaltation. Yet, the performances are expert, the singing is lovely, and the recorded sound is impeccable. Those in search of something unusual need look no further.]

Harmonia Mundi HMU 807565 (2011)
The Christmas Story
(Told in Chant, Motets, Dialogues & Traditional Folk Carols)
Theater of Voices
Ars Nova Coppenhagen
Paul Hillier

[Lovely singing, beautifully recorded. Highlights include Hillier's extraordinary (different!) arrangement of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (a refreshing alternative to the Praetorius and Distler settings), a  gorgeous reading of Byrd's O Magnum Mysterium, and a sweetly melodious rendition of Nils Gade's charming Barn Jesus i en krybbe la along with a number of other interesting rarities. Recommended.]

American Choral Catalog ACC 121 (1995)
December Stillness
The Dale Warland Singers
Dale Warland

[Intriguing repertory, impeccable choral ensemble, and crystal-clear sound make this one of the finest Christmas records of the past twenty years. Emphasizing the quieter, introspective aspects of the season, the program features some truly extraordinary pieces including Alf S. Houkom's hauntingly atmospheric The Rune of Hospitality for chorus and guitar, Trond Kverno's powerful setting of the Corpus Christi Carol, Margorie Hess' The Oxen (after the same poem by Thomas Hardy set by Vaughan Williams in his Hodie, but as different in character as one could imagine), and Stephen Heitzberg's Little Tree, at once deeply poignant and glowingly exultant. This album is not to be missed. (In fact, all of Warland's recordings are well worth seeking out.)]

Chanticleer Records CR-8803 (1992) 
Chanticleer Records CR-8803-2004 (2004 re-issue)
Our Heart's Joy: A Chanticleer Christmas
Matthew Oltman/Louis Botto

[Originally released in 1992, this gorgeous record was re-mastered in 2004 with stunning results. The more recent issue includes additional material originally found on Chanticleer's earlier Psalite! A Renaissance Christmas (Chanticleer CR-8806 (1991 (re-mastered 2008)), which sounds better than ever. (Psalite! is well worth having on its own, as it includes considerable first-rate material not found on Our Heart's Joy.) Highlights of the later album include settings of the Ave Maria by Jean  

Mouton (1458-1522) and Franz Biebl (1906-2001), Giovanni Gabrielli's Quem videstis pastores, an elegant arrangements of Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day by Dale Grotenhuis and Il est né le divin enfant by John Rutter, and a remarkably fresh-sounding rendition of Britten's ubiquitous Hymn to the Virgin.  Joseph Jennings' Suite of Christmas Spirituals gets a bit overly campy in places; its gaudy pop inflections seem out of character with the rest of the program (though I dearly love the source material). Nonetheless, this album must surely be among the great classics of recent decades, especially with the spruced up sonics and bonus material. Not to be missed!]

Collegium COLCD 106 (1987)
Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity 
The Cambridge Singers
John Rutter

[An album to be listened to and loved by candlelight, Christmas Night is, perhaps, the finest of all Rutter's many seasonal recordings. This dulcet, ecstatically understated mostly a-cappella program consistently evokes a mood of gentleness, warmth, and serenity, bringing together outstanding arrangements of familiar and less-well-known carols with some of Rutter's most effective and moving early compositions. Indeed, the tuneful Candlelight Carol and the sublime There Is a Flower are genuine highlights of the album, almost perfectly of a piece with the soaring R.L. Pearsall setting of In Dulci Jubilo that opens the program, and the sturdy, evergreen arrangements of Charles Wood, Geoffry Shaw, and David Wilcocks. Rutter here mostly eschews the pop-showpiece mentality for which he may now be best known. Christmas Night was followed two years later by Christmas With the Cambridge Singers (Collegium COLCD 111 (1989)); a very good album to be sure, yet somehow lacking the thematic cohesion and warmth of the earlier endeavor. Rutter arranges familiar hymns and carols in the style of their original times; thus, Joy to the World is treated like a chorus

Hadel's Messiah, while Adolfe Adam's Cantique de Noel is dressed up as a choral aria in some forgotten operatic work of Berlioz. The album features a broad cross-section of seasonal repertory from polyphonic works by Victoria and Sweelink, to Rutter's slickly saccharine contemporary Angel's Carol, as well as the lovely (and wildly popular) What Sweeter Music Can We Bring.]

Collegium COLCD 121 (1993)
Christmas Day in the Morning
The Cambridge Singers
John Rutter

[Better focused than the earlier Christmas with the Cambridge Singers, with a much more consistent approach to mood and atmosphere, Christmas Day in the Morning, emphasizes the festive and celebratory aspects of the season with great success, making it an almost perfect companion to 1987's Christmas Night. The album features one of the very finest performances of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols with Stephen Varcoe, alone worth the price of the record. Very fine also are Rutter's ebullient arrangements of  I Saw Three Ships, Sans Day Carol with their saprkling orchestral accompaniments, and the beautifully tuneful Irish traditional Wexford Carol, along with his haunting original Wild Wood Carol. Collectors should note that almost all the material on this album (along with Christmas Night and Christmas with the Cambridge Singers) has been repackaged and re-issued many times over the past thirty years, and finding favorite individual tracks can often turn into something of a hunting expedition.]

Cygnus Records CYG 001 (1998)
A Marian Christmas
St. Martin's Chamber Choir
Timothy J. Krueger

[This talented choral group from Denver Colorado presents a diverse, interesting program of carol arrangements and polyphony, all related to the Virgin Mary. Lovely singing evokes a luminous, atmosphere of reverent tranquility and warmth. Inspired programming, a fresh approach to the familiar, and superb recorded sound make this an album to treasure. A Marian Christmas was followed nine years later with A Marian Christmas II (Cygnus CYG 010 (2007)), which, while not

quite successful in duplicating the first album's more rarefied qualities, does present some very interesting music, including Edmund Rubra's seldom-recorded A Virgin's Cradle Hymn, plus works by several contemporary composers.]

Avie AV2141 (2007)
I Sing the Birth
New York Polyphony

[This marvelous male vocal quartet presents serious and impressively varied programs ranging from 13th-century organum and Renaissance polyphony to 20th- and 21st-century settings of medieval texts, along with a few familiar choral gems. Think The King's Singers without the schmaltz or commercial gimmickry. I Sing the Birth includes exciting works by Andrew Smith (b. 1970) (Veni Redemptor Gentium, a tune familiar to many as Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (Savior of the Nations Come)); Peter Maxwell Davis (The Fader of Heven), the 16th-century Scottish polyphonist Robert Parsons' soaring Ave Maria, and no fewer than four different setting of Vox in Rama. The quartet is joined on occasion by three additional female voices in order to explore treasures of the mixed-choir repertory. The recorded sound is superb.]

BIS 2099 (SACD) (2014)
Sing Thee Noel
New York Polyphony

[Another gorgeously sung program from New York Polyphony. Following a pattern established on their 2007 Christmas album for Avie, this 2014 BIS release runs a vast historical gamut, from the 12th to 21st centuries. The overall mood is one of quiet reverence--sometimes approaching the somber-- the choice of repertory is intriguing and the ensemble sound is impeccable. There are four different--marvelously varied-- settings of There Is No Rose of Such Virtue, and as many of Noel! Out of Your Sleep, along with a sweetly intimate rendition of Warlock's Bethlehem Down with guest female voices.  BIS' super-audio sound is truly impressive.]


LP: EMI (HMV Greensleeve) ESD 7050 (1980 re-issue from 1966)
CD: EMI 5 66244 2 (1991 re-issue)
Christmas Music from Kings
Choir of King's College Cambridge
Sir David Wilcocks

[Desirable for some very imaginative arrangements and settings of old texts, including gorgeous rarely-heard versions of Watt's Cradle Song, I Sing of a Maiden, and Angelus ad Virginum, along with  Britten's The Holly and the Ivy  and Imogen Holst's That Child That Lay in Assë Stall. I would recommend this along with Wilcocks' classic EMI album Once In Royal David's City (long out of print on EMI's ultra-budget Classics for Pleasure label, and extremely pricey at that) as together, the two albums offer some of the best examples of this great choral director's art.]

Argo 414-042-2 (1984)
O Come All Ye Faithful
Choir of King's College, Cambridge
Stephen Cleobury

[If you only want one album of an English boy choir singing traditional English carols, this is probably the one to have. Excellent sound, and some very fine arrangements elevate what could have been just another run-of-the-mill program. The old Woodward carol Up! Good Christian Folk and Listen  is especially nice, and it is a pleasure to hear The Seven Joys of Mary in a lively, soaring arrangement.]

Chandos CHAN 6670 (1986)
Chados (Collect) 6670 (2012 re-issue)
Christmas Carols from St. John's
Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge
George Guest

[The two ravishingly gorgeous Welsh carols arranged by Raymond Williams are alone worth the price of this delightful disc. While the program includes many traditional favorites, the performances are thoughtful, lively, and engaging.]

CRD  3443 (1985) (2009 re-issue)
Carols from New College
Choir of New College, Oxford
Edward Higginbottom

[The original 1985 CD release of this very-fine album was marred by a cramped dynamic range and low transfer levels; problems which have subsequently been resolved in this attractive re-issue. Highlights include Kenneth Leighton's youthful setting of The Coventry Carol and Herbert Howell's lyrically awe-rapt Here is the Little Door (Carol Anthem #1).]

Bellaphon 690-01-016 (1982)
Nun singet und seid froh
Der Windsbacher Knabenchor singt Weinachtslieder
(German Christmas songs)
Windsbacher Knabenchor
Karl-Friedrich Beringer

[Another rarity, this surprisingly interesting program of carols and hymns, will certainly be less-familiar to non-German speakers, though the album also includes a wonderful German-language version of Adeste Fidelis, and J.S. Bach's evergreen chorale-setting of In Dulci Jubilo sung with great gusto. The Windsbacher group achieves a rich, full, transparent sound, and is admirably recorded.]


Gimell CDGIM 017 (1988)
Sarum Chant: Missa in galicantu
(Mass at cock-crow)
Four hymns
The Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips

[Anyone who thinks chant is boring ought to hear this. There is a convincingly authentic presence about this recording; the listener almost feels as if he or she is traveling back in time to a Christmas morning in 13th century Salisbury. The antiphonal Gospel sequence with its punctuating bells is breathtaking, and the graceful, expansively mellifluous Sarum melodies soar high and echo long in the memory. Stunning and essential.]

Harmonia Mundi HMU 907099 (1993)
On Yoolis Night: Medieval Carols & Motets
Anonymous 4

[Anonymous 4's blended sound has the purity of a cold, clear mountain stream. This interesting all-a cappella collection of seasonal chant, 14th-century French motets, and 15th-century English carols certainly gives listeners something different. The singing is technically flawless, and quite beautiful, yet the performances often seem to lack verve and spontaneity, and  the coloristic sameness of the ensemble can become tiresome after over an hour of close listening. The technically-challenging early polyphonic motets are the real "find" here, for which this album is highly recommended.]

Nimbus NI 5137 (1988)
Thys Yule: A Medieval Christmas
Martin Best Ensemble
Martin Best

[Exciting, vibrant, earthy performances of medieval carols, songs and motets, this album will get toes tapping and hands clapping. Martin Best brings a refreshing rhythmic vitality to these interpretations, achieving a near-perfect balance between the scholarly need for authenticity and the listener's desire for lively musicality; between the sacred and the profane. These realizations are prettier than, say, Mark Brown and the Pro Cantiona Antiqua's near-cacophonic renditions of some of the same repertory (Alto 1004 (2007 re-issue)), but never "prettified" nor as austerely sublime as Anonymous 4 at their most pure. Highlights include tour-de-force renditions of songs by Gautier de Coinci (c 1177- c 1236) from the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, as well as middle-English carols and secular songs. Marvelous!]

EMI (Angel) CDC 7 49809 2 (1989)
The Carol Album: Seven Centuries of Christmas Music
Taverner Consort, Choir & Players
Andrew Parrott

[This joyous program ranges from infectiously raucous early-American shape-note hymns and 18th-century West-country carols (sung with appropriately broad rrrrr-heavy accents!) to an endearing realization of the original Stille Nacht for two soloists, congregational choir, and guitar (completely unlike the solemn warhorse so inextricably linked to the season.) Medieval Middle-English carols and stirring 16th-century Spanish instrumental pieces happily reside alongside old French bagpipe tunes and German lute songs. A wonderful, classic record that never seems to grow old!]

Nonesuch 9-71354-2 (1978)
Sing We Noel: Christmas Music from England and Early America
The Boston Camerate
Joel Cohen

[Cohen and his fabulous Boston musicians have recorded much of this material more than once, most notably on some of their later albums for Erato; but never with the same energy, spontaneity, and verve heard here. The repertory ranges far and wide, from American folk tunes and shape-note hymns to 15th-century English carols and lush Elizabethan consort songs. This is joyful. buoyant music-making to warm the imagination and lighten the heart.]

Nonesuch 9-71315-2 (1975)
A Medieval Christmas
The Boston Camerata
Joel Cohen

[From ancient Hebrew cantillation to Gregorian chant, organum, and early polyphonic song, The Boston Camerata's first record for Nonesuch remains a landmark of the discography, and a scintillating musical experience, even after nearly forty years. Up until Cohen, most early-music programs were rather dry, emphasizing musicological erudition over popular accessibility; but this album established a pleasant balance between these two seemingly disparate considerations, thus setting a new tone for much that was to follow. Highlights include the stirring conductus, Gedeonis area (attributed to Philippe the Chancellor who also composed Angelus ad Virginem), the joyful Congaudet hodie, and so much more!  The music is juxtaposed with readings in Middle English, which add to the sense of welcoming and warmth. Still essential after all these years.]

Nonesuch 9-79134-2 (1986)
A Renaissance Christmas
The Boston Camerate
Joel Cohen

[One of the true--and truly great-- classics of the seasonal discography; Cohen's A Renaissance Christmas offers listeners a dazzlingly erudite and thoroughgoing survey of a fascinating and richly diverse repertory, ranging from Guillaume Dufay's Missa Ecce Ancilla Domini and Jacobus Galliculus' Magnificat Primi Toni, to 15th-century English carols, Catalan and French folk songs, and the spritely dances from Terpsichore (1620) of Michael Praetorius. Cohen's realizations are always interesting and authentically apt; the performances unfailingly musical, consistently accessible, lively, and entertaining.]

Nonesuch 9-79265-2 (1992)
A Baroque Christmas
The Boston Camerate
Joel Cohen

[Emphasizing the light and lyrical aspects of the Baroque, this enjoyable record includes charming vocal and instrumental works from Monteverdi to Purcell with vivacious and moving music by French, Italian, German and English composers of the 17th and 18th centuries, highlighted by Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Messe de Minuit sur des Airs de Noel (Midnight Mass based on Christmas Songs) and Purcell's The Blessed Virgin's Exposition. This record continues Cohen's winning formula of accessible authenticity. Sheer pleasure!]

Erato 2292 45420 (1991)
Noël! Noël! French Christmas Music 1200-1600
The Boston Camerata
Joel Cohen

[Yet another seasonal staple from the ever-inventive Joel Cohen, this exploration of the French Christmas repertory from the High Middle Ages to the dawn of the Baroque reveals many hidden treasures, endearing lyricism, vibrant rhythmic invention, profound devotion, and festive grandeur. Not to be missed are Cohen's lively rendition of the shepherds' song, Or vous trémoussez, or the ravishing Dona Nobis Pacem from Pierre Certon's Missa 'Sur la Pont d'Avignon'.]

LP: ABC Classics ABCL 67002 (1976)
Christmas Music of 15th and 16th-century Germany
Cologne Musica Antiqua
Konrad Ruhland

[Long out of print, and apparently never re-issued, this remains one of the finest recordings of period Christmas music--ever. Ruhland weaves a scintillating tapestry of carols, chorales, and consort music, a good deal of it by composers who have been virtually forgotten in our time. Eschewing the raucous excess and hard-edged nasal-toned sound ideal of so many early-music outings of the '70s, the musicianship here is subtle and suave, the ensemble playing rich, warm and enchanting. Ruhland recorded some of this material again with the Niederalteicher Scholaren (In Natali Domini: Medieval Christmas Songs (Sony SK 66317 (1991)), and a very fine record it is to be sure. Even so, those who

know the earlier album will be left longing all the more for a carefully re-mastered re-issue. One can only hope that Sony will get around to it soon so we can all enjoy its delights again.]

DG Archive 449-819-2 (1997)
Creator of the Stars: Christmas Music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance
Alexander Blachly

[Simply breathtaking, this imaginative and highly original program is highlighted by gorgeous polyphonic works including the stunning Magnificat Secundi Toni by William Horwood, Christian Erbach's Resonent in Laudibus, Josquin's Praetor rerem seriem, O Sapientia by Robert Ramsey, and the Puer Natus est a 4 by William Byrd, along with works by Dufay, Rore, Lassus, and Praetorius, and Greogrian chant, all exquisitely realized.]

LP: Argo ZRG 671 (1971)
CD re-issue: London (Jubilee) 430-632-2 (1991)
Heinrich Schütz: Wienachtshistorie 
(The Christmas Story)
Motets for Double Choir
Felicity Palmer (soprano (angel)
Ian Partridge (tenor (evangelist)
Eric Stannard (bass (Herod)
Heinrich Schütz Choir
Philip Jones Brass Ensemble
Symphoniae Sacrae Chamber Ensemble
Roger Norrington

[Recorded for Argo in 1971, this endearing--and enduring-- performance emphasizes the lyrical charm and reverent grandeur of Schütz' best-known work. Norrington employs a "hybrid" ensemble of period and modern instruments, doubling and reinforcing some of the parts with brass choir to achieve a kind of Gabrielli-esque effect, which works marvelously well overall. Tempi in the choral sections and various interludes are more deliberate than in many more-recent period-instruments performances, while the evangelist's recitatives are more briskly paced. Nonetheless, Ian Partidge's evangelist is songful and soulful as few others, with lovely, aptly expressive phrasing; Simon Preston's subtle, inventively improvised organ accompaniments add greatly to the interest of  these passages. The roster of first-rate soloists and players is a veritable who's-who of the best British early music specialists of the time, and the musicianship is impeccable throughout--not a single detail seems to have been overlooked. Both the 1991 London Jubilee and 1996 Double Decca re-issues are long out of circulation and not always easy to find now. Those in search of a great alternative period-instruments performance will find much to admire in Andrew Parrott's 1987 reading on EMI (Angel) (7 47633 2 (1987)), subsequently re-issued by Virgin Classics (Special Import) 61353 (2001)). Parrot leads a cast of early-music stalwarts, including Nigel Rogers as the evangelist, Emma

Kirkby, and David Thomas. The Schütz is coupled with grand performances of seasonal motets by Michael Praetorius.]

Deutsche Harmonia Mundi DMH 77463 (1997)
Alessandro Stradella: Christmas Cantatas
La Stagione, Frankfurt
Michael Schneider

[This marvelous, alluring music certainly answers the need for something different. Stradella was a highly-respected contemporary of Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti, and his work was rightfully admired long after his death (Handel was sufficiently impressed to plagiarize it on several occasions). These cantatas 'per il santissimo Natale' (for the Holy Nativity) are an early (and brilliant) example of the concerto-grosso style applied to vocal form. The music is tuneful yet appropriately reverent, serious and yet immediately accessible. The performances are first-rate, the singing lovely, and especially affecting in the tutti-ensemble "madrigals". A must-have for devotees of Baroque Christmas music.]

LP: Argo ZRG 590 (1968)
CD: Decca 430-065-2 (1990 re-issue)
Eloquence 8824314 (2012 re-issue)
Glad Tidings: A Baroque Christmas
Heinrich Schütz Choir
Roger Norrington

[Another classic of the seasonal discography, Glad Tidings, A Baroque Christmas dates from a period of great ferment in early-music performance practice, when many "modern-instruments" ensembles were experimenting with the use of authentic period techniques. That this all-vocal program still so admirably stands the test of time, with impeccable musicality and warmly-established atmosphere--is a marvel. (Other early music outings of the period haven't aged quite so gracefully; Collegium Aureum's all-instrumental A Baroque Christmas (RCA Gold Seal 61882) seems hopelessly old-fashioned nowadays with its somewhat heavy-handed, densely textured performances of Corelli, Manfredini and Tartini.) Highlights of the Norrington album include Purcell's Behold, I Bring You Glad Tidings, Moteverdi's tuneful Christe Redemptor, and exciting rarities by Hammerschmidt and Bouzignac. As with his 1971 performance of A Christmas Story (#34), Norrington's Schütz has a tendency to come off like a heavy, lugubrious German iteration of Gabrielli, a sound ideal from which most modern scholars have (rightly) distanced themselves in more recent times--but the music still has the innate power to endear in spite of sounding a bit old-fashioned. This record is a treat and a treasure.]

DG Archiv 439-250-2 (1994)
Michael Praetorius: Mass for Christmas Morning
Gabrielli Consort and Players
Paul McCreesh

[Perhaps the most successful in McCreesh's series of period liturgical "re-enactments", this album is a sonic tour-de-force, with breathtaking presence. McCreesh takes full advantage of the ambient recording venue to emphasize Praetorius' clever use of antiphonal and spatial effects--best appreciated through headphones. The various hymns and motets are given their due reverence by the congregational choir of Roskilde Cathedral, and the instrumental ensemble makes an appropriately joyful noise. Other equally superb entries in this interesting series include Christmas Mass in Rome (DG Archiv437-833-2 (1993)) featuring Palestrina's beautiful Missa 'Hodie Christus natus est'

and A Venetian Christmas (DG Archiv 289-471-333-2 (2001)) with the Missa 'Praetor rerum seriem' by Cipriano de Rore along with various canzoni and motets of Giovanni Gabrielli. All well worth the

seeking out. Alas, not so the rather stodgy Schütz Christmas Vespers (DG Archiv 289-463-046 (1999)) with its oddly uninspired rendition of The Christmas Story.]

CPO 999-412-2 (1996)
Telemann: Christmas Oratorio;
2 Christmas Cantatas
Chamber Choir & Orchestra, Michaelstein
Ludger Rémy

[see the earlier review on this site here.]

CPO 999-668-2 (1999) (Cantatas 1-5)
CPO 999-735-2 (2000) (Cantatas 6-10)
Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel: Christmas Oratorio
Wiemar Baroque Ensemble
Ludger Rémy

[see the earlier review on this site here.]

Harmonia Mundi HMX 2971782 (2006)
J.S. Bach: Magnificat in E (with Christmas Interpolations) BWV 243a
Christen, ätzet diesen Tag BWV 63
Collegium Vocale, Ghent
Philippe Herreweghe

[Herreweghe, along with this impressive group of top-flight players and soloists, conveys an infectious joy, awe and unalloyed beauty. Some argue that the Christmas interpolations in the E-major Magnificat interrupt the work's dramatic momentum, but this performance might well convince the skeptics. The E-major version evokes a somewhat different character, quieter, more reserved and more inward-looking than the D-major, though aside from the festive trumpets and a few slight melodic variances, the music is almost identical. The lively, ebullient cantata BWV 63 for Christmas morning is perfectly paired with the more introspective Magnificat. Enthusiastically recommended!]

LP: L'Oiseau-Lyre DSDL 709 (1983)
CD: L'Oiseau-Lyre 410-179-2
Decca (L'Oiseau-Lyre) 478 6753 (50-disc box set) (2014)
Christmas Concertos
works by Corelli, Werner, Gossec, Vejvanowski, J.S. Bach, Torelli, G.F. Handel
Academy of Ancient Music and Choir
Christopher Hogwood

[As noted in my review of the recent 50-disc Decca box set, this diverting and well-executed program actually includes one or two genuinely pleasant surprises. The stand-alone performance of Corelli's evergreen Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 8 "Christmas" is simply lovely, as are the de regueur renditions of the Sinfonia from Bach's Christmas Oratorio, and the Pifa sinfonia from Handel's Messiah. A bit more off the beaten track, but no less charming are works by Gregor Joseph Wener (Pastorella for organ and orchestra), Francois-Joseph Gossec (Suite de noels with chorus), and the 17th-century Czech master Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky (Sonata Natalis). A genuinely treasurable record for any time of year. (NOTE: A licensed re-issue of the original disc is available from, and can be found here.]


RCA (Red Seal) 7787-2-RC (1988)
Ceremonies of Carols
Britten: A Ceremony of Carols
Poulenc: Quatre Motets pour le temp de Noël 
Respighi: Lauda per la Nativita del Signore
The Philadelphia Singers
Michael Korn

[The real reason to own this album is Respighi's rare and ravishing Lauda per la Nativita del Signore, an imaginatively scored work of breathtaking lyricism that soars and soothes with a near-mystical combination of operatic grandeur and down-to-earth sweetness. Much of the melodic material is drawn from or inspired by traditional Italian folk carols with their characteristic dotted-six Siciliano rhythms, and by pifa music (the same rustic piping of Roman shepherds that inspired Handel's Pifa sinfonia in Messiah, and Corelli in his famous 'Christmas' Concerto Grosso Op. 6 #8). The work is thus appropriately scored for an ensemble mostly of double-reeded woodwind instruments (oboes, English Horn, bassoons) as well as clarinet and flute reinforced by duo pianos to create a rich, colorful sound, as evocative as any of the composer's most picturesque orchestral tone poems. This elegantly-recorded performance is among the very finest, featuring great soloists, a superb chorus and top-tier instrumental playing. Poulenc's seemingly omnipresent Quatre Motets pour le temp de Noël receive a standout performance as well, one which seems to emanate from a place of great awe and reverence, emphasizing the music's deep sense of mystery and longing. It's not clear what sets The Philadelphia Singers rendition apart from so many other good--even great-- performances; perhaps the somewhat more distant-sounding micing or the warm, rich ambiance of the recording venue; yet, if one had no other recording of the Poulenc, this would be the one to own. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the title piece. There are much better performances of Britten's ever-popular Ceremony of Carols--essentially conceived as a work for boy-choir, but here performed by a rather overbearing-sounding women's ensemble, which tends to distort the innate delicacy of the music, blurring its transparent textures, over-shading its soft colors. Many may buy this record for the Britten, but ultimately love it for the Poulenc and Respighi.]

Naxos 8.555994 (2005)
Witold Lutoslawki: Twenty Polish Christmas Carols
Olga Pasichnyk (soprano)
Jadwiga Rappé (alto)
Polish Radio Chorus (Krakow)
Polish National Radio SO'
Antoni Wit

[Those only familiar with Lutoslawki's more acerbic avant-garde compositions of the '60s and '70s, will be pleasantly shocked and delighted by what they find on this charming album. Like his near-contemporary Ligeti in Hungary, Lutoslawski (Poland's greatest composer between Szymonowski and Penderecki) began his career very much under the influence of Bartok and the folk music movement, which, though sometimes exploited by authoritarian governments for questionable ideological purposes, resulted in some truly lovely, surprisingly imaginative, and highly accessible music. These arrangements of Polish Christmas songs are lithe, lively and luminous, warm and spirited, cleverly orchestrated and, here, beautifully sung by committed native speakers. Those in search of something different will certainly find it on this record--simply a delight, and not to be missed.]

Hyperion CDA 67688 (2008)
Honegger: Une Cantata de Noël 
Cello Concerto; Horace victorieux etc.
BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales
Thierry Fischer

[It's virtually impossible to find a recording on CD of Honegger's quirky, eclectic, and strangely moving Une Cantata de Noël that isn't coupled with other non-seasonal works, and this 2008 album from Hyperion is no exception. Nonetheless, the performance is a very good one, conveying the work's sense of joy and mystery, the music moving from deep gloom to exultant illumination. Recorded sound is first rate.]

Nimbus NI 7021 (1987)
Musical Heritage Society MHS 513135Y (1992 re-issue)
Make We Joy: Christmas Music of Holst and Walton
Christ Church Cathedral Choir
Stephen Darlington

[It was surely a stroke of inspiration to pair seasonal works by Holst and Walton on this engaging and well-sung program. There's a good deal more to both composers' ouevre than most choral anthologies would lead listeners to believe. The familiar works are here; Holst's In the Bleak Midwinter, Personent Hodie, and Lullay, My Liking as well as Walton's What Cheer and All This Time; but it's wonderful also to hear Walton's delicious setting of the macabre legend-carol King Herod and the Cock and the ebullient Make We Joy close beside Holst's lively iteration of The Wassail Song and the unusual, surprisingly effective setting of Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, for once including every verses in the ballad-like narrative. Well worth seeking out.]

Thorofon CTH 2281 (1997)
Distler Die Wienachtsgeschichte Op. 10
(The Christmas Story)
Liedmotetten zu Weinachts (8)
(Motets based on Christmas carols)
Choir of the Hochschule der Künste, Berlin
Christian Grube

[Distler's youthful Wienachtsgeschichte is a work of striking inventiveness. A set of ravishing a cappella choral variations on Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen are interpolated within the narrative structure, itself a bare-bones recitation of the story from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew by an unaccompanied cantor/evangelist. Framing the narrative are two elaborate choral motets,  settings of words from Isaiah and the Gospel of John, which in their introspective depth, effectively set the tone for the narrative. But the work's emotional and musical high point comes in the third variation, the choral part juxtaposed against the soprano soloist's singing of the Magnificat; a truly powerful and affecting moment. (The choral variations can be performed as a discrete work separate from the oratorio; a stunning example was recorded by St. Martin's Chamber Choir (see #15))  The 1997 Thorofon disc is probably the best choice for the work, as the recorded sound is appropriately resonant, and the singing very fine; the disc also includes eight little motets based on Christmas carols, which are seldom found together on record. Perhaps a bit easier to find is the 1979 performance of the Wienachtsgeschichte by the Thomanerchor of Leipzig under Hans-Joachim Rotzsch, issued a number of times on various labels, notably Berlin Classics (3288 (2005)), and most recently on Brilliant Classics 94695 (2013 re-issue)). The Rotzsch performance is serviceable with good soloists and a committed boychoir, though the sound seems rather constricted and boxy compared to the newer Thorofon recording, and there is no additional filler material on the disc.]

Naxos 8.570439 (2007)
Vaughan Williams: Hodie
Fantasia on Christmas Carols
Guilford Choral Society
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Hilary Davan Wetton

[Hodie is a work of Vaughan Williams ripe old age, and this superbly recorded and enthusiastically performed rendition of his marvelously eclectic Christmas oratorio is a worthy successor to David Wilcocks' classic EMI recording from the 1960s (a recording that has never been properly re-mastered). Wetton brings just the right measure of excitement, seriousness, and buoyancy to the music. The choral narrative sections are acutely enunciated, the solo interludes aptly lyrical and heartfelt. Under Wetton, the work is here more than a mere series of loosely-related episodes, but elucidated as a whole magnificent musical entity, with moments of profound emotional impact. Hodie is paired on this disc with a good performance of the festive Fantasia on Christmas Carols--though I still prefer Stephen Varcoe with The Cambridge Singers (see #14).]

Naxos 8.559621 (2008)
Leroy Anderson: Sleigh Ride and Other Holiday Favorites
BBC Concert Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

[Anderson was the undisputed master of light music in the 1940s and '50s, and many have dismissed him as a composer based on that reputation. But his craftmanship was prodigious, his compositional acumen and attention to detail unassailable. In addition to several of the composer's most familiar "lollypops", this well-played and finely-recorded collection includes several sturdy suites of carols, each for a different orchestral section--brass, winds, strings-- each expertly exploiting the idiomatic characteristics of those particular sections. This record is unapologetically fun, and will delight listeners of all ages.]


Dorian DOR-90198 (1994)
Bright Day Star: Music for the Yuletide Season 
Old Carols and Dance Tunes from The British Isles, Germany and Appalachia
The Baltimore Consort

[In the ebullient spirit of its best recordings (Art of the Bawdy Song (Dorian DOR 90155 (1992)), La Rocque 'n' Roll (Dorian DOR 90177 (1993)), the Baltimore Consort presents a lively, eclectic, spirit-warming program of traditional and classical music, featuring the group's signature improvisational approach with a generous dose of swing. The record includes some alluring rarities like the 17th-century lament Christmas Is My Name, and Hey for Christmas, a wonderful rendition of The Dargason with a rambunctiously jolly  text. Also quite interesting are pieces by Johann Michael Bach, John Bull, and Nikolaus Herman. While I would not go so far as to join those who have called Bright Day Star "the greatest Christmas album ever made", it certainly makes for an enjoyable hour of listening.]

SAYDISC CD-SDL 371 (1988)
Musical Heritage Society 512618M (1990 re-issue)
Christmas Now Is Drawing Near 
English Folk Carols on Original Instruments
Sneak's Noyse
Roddy Skeaping

[This merry, full-throated celebration of the season, takes listeners to that wonderful place where early music meets its folk roots. Vibrant, colorful, and seductive, Skeaping's band certainly knows how to keep Christmas! The program offers a number of fascinating alternate tunes and 'contrafactum' for familiar traditional songs, several very-different iterations of the Wassail song, as well as one or two more obscure pieces heard nowhere else. Also, of great interest, are Maddy Prior's fresh re-interpretations of traditional tunes in her marvelous A Tapestry of Carols (SAYDISC CD-SDL 366 (1987)) Here, the lead singer of English folk-rock band Steeleye Span (a thoughtful scholar of traditional music in her own right) joins with the period-instruments group The Carnival Band in marvelous interpretations with the feel of impromptu inventions. Especially engaging is the 'alternate'

(in fact, earlier "traditional") tune for It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. Just one of many delights.]

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