Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tis the Season Music

Inspired by reader KitWistar, here's a short list of must-have Christmas music:

1) George Frideric Handel/Messiah/Christopher Hogwood/Academy of Ancient Music. Yes, only a third of the best known oratorio is about the birth of Christ; so what? This recording employs instruments and a version of the work that may be unfamiliar. But it's better.

2) Robert Shaw/Songs of Angels - Christmas Hymns and Carols: Justly famous for years worth of Christmas choral albums, this is one of Shaw's last Xmas recordings--so is digital.

3) J.S. Bach/Christmas Oratorio/Academy of St. Martins in the Fields/Kings College Cambridge/Elly Ameling/Janet Baker/Robert Tear/Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Here I depart from KitWistar's recommendation as to the orchestra--though keeping the bass soloist. And a second, overlapping suggestion: the remastered set of Bach "Sacred Masterpieces" Karl Richter/Munich Bach Orchestra, which includes his Christmas Oratorio, the St. Matthew Passion, the Mass in B Minor, the Magnificat and the St. John Passion.

4) Gregorio Allegri/Miserere mei Deus/Tallis Scholars. Yes, this setting of Psalm 51 nominally is an Easter work. But the four- and five-part a Capella choral harmony is astoundingly lush. And its history arguably is better--for at least a century, the Pope limited performances to the Sistine Chapel; copying the score was punishable by excommunication, effectively hiding Allegri from humanity. Until, the story goes, a 12 year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart -- touring Rome in the Spring of 1770 -- heard a performance, and promptly transcribed it from memory. I must have five recordings of this piece (which originally called for castrato, and now substitutes a boy soprano)--including an instrumental version by The Canadian Brass.

5) John Rutter/City of London Sinfonia/Cambridge Singers/Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity. Rutter is the best living Christmas carol composer and conductor, with more than a dozen great Christmas albums. But this is the pick of the litter.

6) The Roches/We Three Kings. Is it folk or a joke? One either loves this album or hates it--I'm in the first category.

7) Aaron Neville/Soulful Christmas. One of the great R&B voices does Christmas perfectly.

8) George Winston/December: Piano Solos. Christmas "new age" style.

Look Ma, no "Nutcracker." Compare to Kit's recommendations.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget "The King's Singers" Christmas album.

Carl said...

"The King's Singers" have several Xmas albums, but I suspect Anony is thinking of this one, which is good (though Rutter's better).

Gringo said...

Your listing has inspired me to go to the library and take out a CD with Gregorio's Allegri.

Carl said...

Gringo: Caution--several composers have written a Miserere (Arvo Pärt for example). You want Allegri's, which is the best known, and most recorded.

Carl said...

For some reason, Kit responded here. I've reprinted it below:


Your Xmas selections #1-5 are, of course, right up there with perfection. Funny, when I was thinking up my list, I totally forgot about Robert Shaw, even though I grew up listening to it every December.

(Many years ago, my family had a French recording of Christmas Eve chants at the monastery of Montserrat. Even as a small child, it hauntingly resonated in my soul. The soprano was like ice, singing. Despite searching, I have yet to be able to find that album again.)

In my list I forgot the Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria"; I especially like the Irish Tenors version.

I had not known that Aaron Neville recorded Christmas music---it is just Lucious and already added to my favourites. John Ritter and George Winston are good companions for the holidays, though neither makes my top 10.

The Roches--what was your comment? Love ‘em or hate ‘em. I’m the latter. I’ve never knowingly heard them before & I hope never to again. Waaaay too Laura Nyro-y for my taste.

My "love it or hate it"s are Mahalia Jackson singing "O Come all ye Faithful" and Ella Fitzgerald singing "White Christmas", a song I otherwise cannot stand.

This year, though my kids have no interest in it, I’m going to try to go to the Messiah SingAlong at the KC; I haven’t done it in years & its really fun.

Carl said...

Kit: I've liked the Roches since I did concert sound for them once in early 1980. And I saw them perform most of their Christmas album a year ago at the Birchmere. So perhaps I'm prejudiced--but, for comparison, I don't like Laura Nyro.

I love that Mahalia Jackson, but I like most of her stuff. Same with Ella.

I used to do the Messiah sing-along at the Ken. Cen., but haven't for at least 15 years. Indeed, now that I think about it, I own the scores for most of the favorites on my list (I was a good alto who turned into a mediocre tenor).