Over the past 20-plus years I have accumulated hundreds of Christmas CDs–featuring choirs, orchestras, brass ensembles, guitar, harp, string quartet, piano, organ, etc., etc.–and I appreciate most of them for various reasons; but no matter how many newcomers join the collection, there are a few “oldies” that have more than stood the test of time. These recordings hold a special importance that keeps them at the top of my stack of CDs that reside either next to or inside my CD player for the duration of the Christmas season. For what it’s worth, here is a list of the top six (a top 50 would have been no problem, but I’d rather keep this to a manageable and also meaningfully small number)–any or all of which I can confidently recommend, without reservation, as true Christmas classics.
1. Christmas Night–Carols of the Nativity/The Cambridge Singers, The City of London Sinfonia/John Rutter (Collegium) There’s never been a more beautiful or perfectly expressed musical evocation of Christmas than on this classic recording from John Rutter and his inimitable Cambridge Singers. Original pieces (Ord, Howells, Darke, Cornelius) and arrangements of traditional carols (Kirkpatrick, Terry) mingle with several Rutter gems, including There is a flower and the exceptionally lovely title piece, Christmas Night. This conductor/composer/arranger and choir know Christmas music as well as anyone–and no one sings or records it better.
2. Bright Day Star/The Baltimore Consort (Dorian) Here’s what I said when this disc was reissued in 2007: “One of the finest Christmas recordings ever made, this 1994 production by the Baltimore Consort makes a welcome return (complete with a new cover) along with the revival of the Dorian label. Glowing with the high, clear soprano of Custer LaRue and brimming with versatile, virtuoso instrumental work by Mary Anne Ballard (viols, rebec), Mark Cudek (cittern, Baroque guitar, viols, bandora), Larry Lipkis (viol, recorder, gemshorn), Ronn McFarlane (lute), Chris Norman (wooden flutes, pennywhistle), and Webb Wiggins (organ), this program literally lives up to the promise of its title.” I can’t say it any better than that these many years later. If you don’t have this–well, you simply must! [read review here]
3. Messiah/G.F. Handel/The Sixteen, Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Ton Koopman (Warner Classics/Erato) Originally issued by Erato, taken from live performances from the 1983 Rimini and Holland Festivals, this remains for me the only Messiah recording that truly captures a sense of occasion (which Handel would certainly appreciate) and a real and powerful feeling of the moment, that you are there, on the edge of something exciting, anticipating and thoroughly caught up in the music, the drama, and the absolutely first-rate performances. This is great theatre, top-notch Handel, and an enthralling musical experience–every time.
4. Victor Hely-Hutchinson: A Carol Symphony; Works for Christmas by Bryan Kelly, Peter Warlock, Philip Lane, & Patric Standford (Naxos) How much fun can you have listening to a Christmas music recording? Try this one and you’ll see that there’s no limit. We’ve all heard orchestral arrangements of Christmas carols before, but these go far beyond the merely clever and functional; each of these carol tributes is a little masterpiece that exploits all the resources of the orchestra to enliven the melodies and rhythms and sensibilities of the chosen tunes. And you couldn’t ask for more enthusiastic or committed advocates for this music than the City of Prague Philharmonic and conductor Gavin Sutherland–nor could you ask for more polished, dynamic, stylish playing. Your Christmas collection is just not complete without this. [read review here]
5. Wolcum Yule/Anonymous 4 (Harmonia Mundi) You simply can’t go wrong with Anonymous 4, and this recording of “Celtic and British Carols and Songs” from 2003 is probably the ensemble’s best Christmas recording–except for the earlier On Yoolis Night (1993) and later The Cherry Tree (2009)–notice how I managed to squeeze in a couple more recommendations beyond the promised six. [read review here]
6. Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker (complete ballet)/Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa (Deutsche Grammophon) Any first-class orchestra can play this score with flawless technique and a flair for the style of Tchaikovsky’s tunes, colors, and captivating dances. But the true test of a successful performance lies in how well conductor and orchestra convey the dreamlike, fantastical elements of the Kingdom of Sweets. My measure of this always is the “Arabian Dance”, whose wonderfully exotic character can only be captured by a sensitivity to tempo and careful balancing of the orchestral sections with solo instruments. It’s a fine line between a pretty, functional character piece and a dreamy, sensuous, almost otherworldly dance. Seiji Ozawa and his Boston Symphony are among the few who successfully indulge the music’s desire to cast its spell (that oboe melody followed by English horn about three-quarters of the way through just get you every time). And although it was made in 1990, the Boston recording holds up remarkably well sonically to any modern production.
**And then under the guise of “runner-up” or some other such cheating device, lists such as these always invite the addition of a few more titles to the initial exclusive selection. I will add only one more: Christmas at Trinity (Naxos), a first-rate example of how an American church choir–New York’s Choir of Trinity Church, Wall Street–can perform and record a program of now-traditional Christmas carols, hymns, and anthems as beautifully as any of those storied English choirs. One of the best. [click here for review]**