Since publishing last year’s “Six Christmas CDs That Always Make the List”, a few more titles either newly released or left out of the original group made their case for inclusion so strongly that I had to add a “Part 2”. So, here are another six Christmas CDs that together with the first set add up to a neat “12 Discs of Christmas” package, unwrapped and ready to play. Let the cheer begin!
Horns for the Holidays/Dallas Wind Symphony, Jerry Junkin (Reference Recordings) If you are a lover of Christmas music—carols, popular songs, and all manner of medleys and clever arrangements of such—and you miss this extraordinary recording by the first-rate Dallas Wind Symphony, then your holiday listening stands to be just a bit more dull, less festive, and more ordinary than it could have been. This is a terrific program, in exemplary sound, that not only celebrates the Christmas music tradition but exemplifies the best of the wind ensemble genre, with its unique sonorities and long tradition of both originality and sense of playfulness and humor on the part of composers and arrangers. Among the highlights: my favorite, a celebration of the much-maligned minor mode—DWS saxophonist David Lovrien’s Minor Alterations: Christmas Through the Looking Glass, a “recasting” of favorite Christmas songs and carols (and even snippets of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker combined with Deck the Hall!) into a wonderful medley of minor-key madness (along with some melodic and rhythmic twists) that definitely calls for repeated listening.
The Wonder of Christmas/Elora Festival Singers, Noel Edison (Naxos) The only new release (2014) on the entire list, it comes from one of the world’s eminent choirs, and you won’t find a more agreeably programmed or better sung Christmas recording in the catalog. Traditional favorites are juxtaposed with more modern arrangements. The soloists are superb, the organ is resplendent, and the sound, from the choir’s home venue in Elora, Ontario, is ideal.
J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio/RIAS-Kammerchor (Harmonia Mundi) This is simply one of the great Christmas Oratorio recordings, an ideal combination of soloists, chorus, orchestra, and conductor joining in what could be described as the consummate musical embodiment of the joy and miraculousness of the Christmas story. In any event, this six-part cantata cycle is a major Bach masterpiece (among many masterpieces!), and René Jacobs manages to fuse the score’s multifarious elements into a unified whole that transcends any one individual effort.
Benjamin Britten: A Ceremony of Carols; John Rutter: Dancing Day/Toronto Children’s Chorus/Jean Ashworth Bartle (Marquis) You can’t have a Christmas recording collection called anywhere near “complete” without one or more recordings of Britten’s classic work for trebles and harp, A Ceremony of Carols. Joining in the Toronto Children’s Chorus’ 25th anniversary celebration in 2003, Marquis Classics made a good decision to reissue on one CD some of this world-renowned choir’s best Christmas music recorded for the label. The primary works—the world-premiere recording of John Rutter’s Dancing Day cycle (from 1990) and Benjamin Britten’s perennial favorite A Ceremony of Carols (from 1991’s Mostly Britten CD)—both feature treble voices with harp accompaniment, and suffice it to say, these are exemplary performances that demonstrate the highest standard of musicianship and ensemble singing, and the kind of treble vocal tone that any choir director would give his conducting arm for.
Celebration: Christmas Fanfares and Carols/Fanfare Trumpeters of the Welsh Guards/BBC Welsh Chorus, John Hugh Thomas; Huw Tregelles Williams, organ/Readings by Aled Jones (from Robert Bridges, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Hardy, Saunders Lewis, Charles Dickens, & Laurie Lee) (Nimbus) This unusual program—including both choral works and well-chosen poetic/dramatic readings—features world-class Welsh performers in a celebration of both the sacred and secular traditions that define Christmas in the Western world. The musical selections couldn’t be better—Willcocks, Poston, Rutter, Mathias, Howells, Walford Davies, Malcolm Sargent, John Gardner—nor the featured readings—Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, etc. And what says Christmas more festively and happily than brass fanfares? We get these here too, as well as fabulous organ playing by Huw Tregelles Williams. Aled Jones, who prior to this recording was a legendary boy soprano, delivers the readings with a confident, engaging, articulate style that’s as captivating for a listener as are the musical performances. A great disc from the early 1990s—and I was happily surprised to find that it’s still around!
I SING THE BIRTH/New York Polyphony (Avie) There may be a better vocal Christmas disc to come along the past few seasons, but it would have to be awfully impressive to best this beautifully sung, imaginatively programmed effort from the male-quartet New York Polyphony. As the liner notes point out, Christmas uniquely brings together a hugely diverse range of musical styles and traditions, and this program reflects that diversity while maintaining the integrity of a unified program, in both atmosphere (amazingly, recorded in a church in the middle of New York!) and in the prevailing medieval/Renaissance sensibility of even the modern pieces.