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.

6 comments:

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:


Carl—

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).