Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Few More Great Christmas Records

The search for fresh, new, and exciting seasonal repertory often seems like a fool's errand, what with the steady stream of major-label releases designed, it seems, more to make money than music. Do we really need another album of popular carols in embarrassingly unimaginative arrangements to clutter up our shelves and gather dust eleven months out of the year? (Naxos' The Wonder of Christmas by the almost-always magnificent Elora Festival Singers was among the biggest and dullest disappointments of 2014 (Naxos 8.573421) while John Rutter's A Christmas Festival (Collegium COLCD 133 (2008)) does less to conjure visions of sugar plums than saccharine nightmares of dorsal fins on the chilly horizon.) Is there nothing new (or, at least, fresh and exciting) under the mid-winter sun? 

By way of answer, here's a list (with random annotations) of several fairly-recent records (new to me in any case); things I've enjoyed enough to recommend. 

Carus 83.392 (2015)
O Heilige Nacht: Romantic Choral Music for Christmas
Works by Brahms, Bruch, Reger, Loewe, Gustav Schrek et al.
Dresden Chamber Choir
Hans-Christoph Rademann

Beautifully sung, this program offers repertory that will be less familiar to many listeners.
These quiet choral reveries--many of them based on traditional carols and chorales--will be a soothing anodyne to the noisier intrusions of the season.

ECM (New Series 2408) B0021555-02 (2014)
Transeamus (English Carols and Motets)
The Hilliard Ensemble

For their final album, Paul Hillier and the ensemble he made famous over a forty-year career return, appropriately enough, to their Medieval English roots for a program of mostly off-the-beaten-track material, including works by William Cornysh, John Plummer, and Walter Lambe.

Harmonia-Mundi HMU 807575 (2015)
A Wondrous Mystery (Renaissance Choral Music for Christmas)
Works by H. and M. Praetorius, Clemens non Papa, Handl, Hassler, Eccard and Vulpius
Stile Antico

Christmas music of the late German Renaissance, especially the work of Michael Praetorius, has been so often indifferently done, that I was at first hesitant about this album. But Stile Antico has never let me down, and the ensemble's reputation was inducement enough. The group brings its impeccable musicianship, with freshness (and apparent gusto!) to this music--not all of it overly familiar--with ravishing choral sound, captured marvelously by Harmonia-Mundi's engineers.

Harmonia-Mundi HMU 807517 (2010)
Puer natus est (Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas)
Works by Tallis, Byrd, Taverner, Robert White, John Sheppard et al.
Stile Antico

Stile Antico's first album is still a delight, featuring their characteristic mastery of English Renaissance treasures. There is nothing uniquely seasonal about the style of this music--listeners  not following the English translations of the Latin texts might have no idea that these works relate to Advent and Christmas at all. Yet, the music is truly wonderful, particularly John Sheppard's glorious, soaring Verbum caro, which ends the program, and is, itself, well worth the price of the album.

Alla Vox AV 9634 (2003)
Villancicos y Danzas Criollas
(Works from Spain and the New World (1550-1750)
La Cappella Reial de Catalunya
Hesperion XXI
Jordi Savall

Not strictly speaking a Christmas record, Savall's lively renditions of traditional Spanish villancicos are, nonetheless, appropriately festive and delectably engaging.

Deutsche Harmonia-Mundi 88883761582 (2012)
On a Cold Winter's Day (traditional and folk music)
Elisabeth Kaplan (voice)
Quadriga Consort (early instruments)

In the tradition of Maddy Pryor and the Carnival Band's lively, often-rustic reinterpretations of traditional carols (A Tapestry of Carols (Saydisc CD-SDL 366 (1987)) the Quadriga Consort with vocalist Elisabeth Kaplan gives listeners a program of rhythmically vibrant music, seemingly for the sheer pleasure of it!

Maggie's Music MMCD108 (1993)
Ancient Noëls (tradition, folk, Medieval and Renaissance music)
Maggie Sansone (hammered dulcimer)
Ensemble Galilei

This independent production offers a pleasurable hour of listening, with fine music-making on traditional instruments. Scintillating and soothing, this is perfect music for achieving a quietly joyful, introspective frame of mind.

Erato 55193 (Virgin Veritas CDC 7243 5 55193 2) (1994)
(re-issued by Arkiv Music)
A Waverly Consort Christmas: Christmas from East Anglia to Appalachia
The Waverly Consort
Michael Jaffee

By now a classic along with the ensemble's famous 1977 album A Renaissance Christmas (CBS MK 34554 (1977)  A Waverly Consort Christmas from 1994 is sheer pleasure from beginning to end. Drawing on traditional sources from Great Britain and early America, there's plenty of variety from solemn hymns to rollicking fiddle tunes and drinking songs.

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