My favorite Christmas music

December 14, 2010

I appreciate when other people recommend
favorite CDs. In that spirit, I share with you some of my favorite Christmas
CDs. (A warning: I tend to favor the less familiar over tried and true
Christmas carols. I also prefer vocal music to instrumental and a cappella to

Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier, director,
Carols from the Old and New Worlds.
The Pro-Arte Singers and the Indiana University Children's Choir, Paul Hillier,
director, Carols from the Old and New
Worlds, vol. II.
These recordings draw on carols based on English and
German folk tunes, as well as early American music, some from the shape-note
tradition. Unfortunately, the first volume appears to be available only used or
in the form of mp3 downloads. The second one was reissued as Traditional and Modern Carols and is
available on CD.

Chanticleer, Sing We Christmas. The sound produced by this San Francisco-based
male ensemble is about as pure as blended human voices get. The more recent A Chanticleer Christmas ends with Franz
Biebl's Ave Maria and almost makes a
Mary devotee out of this dyed-in-the-wool Protestant. But if I had to choose
between them, I'd still go with the earlier CD.

The Cambridge Singers, The City of London
Sinfonia, John Rutter, director, Christus
natus est: The John Rutter Christmas Album.
Polyphony, the City of London
Sinfonia, Stephen Layton, conductor, John
Rutter: Music for Christmas.
Although Rutter's work extends far beyond
Christmas music, much of his better-known music was written for Christmas. As a
student he began writing carols because it freed him from having to write
atonal music, which was in vogue. Both CDs contain some of Rutter's own carols,
along with his delectable arrangements of other Christmas songs. There is some
duplication between the two volumes.

Robert Shaw Chamber
Singers, Robert Shaw, conductor, A Robert
Shaw Christmas: Angels on High.
There's a consistency to the Robert Shaw
Chorale sound and it can become predictable. Yet I recommend this CD for some
of its selections:  Randall
Thompson's Alleluia, Morton
Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium,
Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols,
some of the chorales from Bach's Christmas
and the previously mentioned Biebl Ave Maria.

The Baltimore Consort, Custer LaRue, soprano,
Bright Day Star: Music for the Yuletide Season.
This CD contains old carols and dance tunes from the British Isles, Germany and
Appalachia. What makes it unique are the arrangements and the use of
instruments from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Waverly Consort, Michael Jaffe, director,
A Waverly Consort Christmas. People
who enjoy early American or Celtic music or the compositions of William
Billings will be drawn to this CD. The often spirited, sometimes tranquil songs
are sung a cappella or accompanied by simple period instruments. Unfortunately,
this album is available only as an MP3 download.

Chicago A Cappella, Christmas A Cappella: Songs From Around the World. I'm drawn to
this CD because of its great range of songs--including newer numbers, some by
younger composers, several from Africa. It contains the unfamiliar, like the opener
"Amuworo ayi otu nwa" by Nigerian
composer Christian Onyeji, and the very familiar, like "O
Come, O Come Emmanuel." I'm
thrilled that my friend Jim Clemens arranged "Jingle a cappella," which was
written especially for Chicago A Cappella.

The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips,
director, Christmas Carols and Motets. This
CD includes medieval carols, Renaissance motets and German chorales mostly from
after the Reformation. Four renditions of Ave Maria are offered, a reminder of
the importance of Marian devotion in the Catholic tradition. The clarity and
translucence demonstrated by the Tallis Scholars is not only remarkable, but
also suited to this music.

At some point in the season, my spouse
and I like to listen to Handel's Messiah,
even though it isn't strictly a Christmas oratorio. I also try to listen to
Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night
, which makes me think sentimentally about when I played the role of
Balthazar in college.


Wonderful --- but any Advent music?

This list is wonderful! I already have the Chanticleer, Robert Shaw, and John Rutter albums (and add my affirmation of them), and I will be adding the rest to my wish list.

But has anyone found good Advent recordings? I have pieced together an Advent mix for myself, but it mostly consists of variations on "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" :-(

I would love more Advent suggestions!


Thanks! I will check those out!