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Library Essentials 2: Two Timeless English Christmas Recordings

David Vernier

In the first couple of decades following the advent of the CD in the mid-1980s, new recordings of Christmas music would flood the market each autumn, from every label, large and small—dozens and dozens of releases, from early music programs to collections of carols from all over the world, Christmas programs from British cathedrals, to the great masterworks of Bach and Handel and Britten, to the offerings of all manner of soloists and chamber groups (instrumental and vocal), even jazz and (gulp!) new age, and of course including the over-produced efforts of the currently hip (or not so) pop and opera stars. For one who loves Christmas music it definitely was a “golden age”. Most of it was from choirs; much of it was very good, from world-class ensembles, even if the repertoire, especially carol arrangements, tended to be repetitious. In some notable cases, as in the two examples cited here, commonly known repertoire was either presented in unique arrangements or juxtaposed with new settings or completely original pieces.

For the record, I have more than 1000 recordings on my shelves that can be classified as “Christmas”, and during the pandemically challenged year 2021, deprived of any of my usual personal concert performance experiences, including church choir, I determined to begin a journey to listen to as many of these recordings as possible, accumulated during the past 35 years—and many, including the two I mention, are still available, albeit only from sources outside the U.S. Don’t let that stop you; and while you’re at it, be sure to check out other offerings from these two labels.

Christmas Joy, Volume 2

The Choir of Durham Cathedral

James Lancelot, Master of the Choristers and Organist

Keith Wright, organ

In the late-1990s Priory Records’ Neil Collier made a series of recordings from several British cathedral choirs titled “Christmas Joy”—I have volumes 1 through 4 (I’m not sure if there were any later additions). Volume 2 features the Choir of Durham Cathedral–not one commonly known to North American audiences, but one that most listeners will embrace, not only for its ensemble polish and vibrant timbre but for the lovely, focused, clear-toned boy trebles.

This program is a treat, beginning with a fabulous new setting of the Advent carol People, look East (by Christopher Steel), which will surprise and delight everyone who knows the piece in its usual guise. The only question is, why don’t more choirs perform this version? Along the way through the disc’s generous 26 tracks, the familiar—Darke’s In the bleak mid-winter; Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin; Willcocks’ O come, all ye faithful, God rest you merry, gentlemen, and Hark! The herald angels sing; Bach’s In dulci jubilo; Gardner’s Tomorrow shall be my dancing day—sit aside Roger Hemingway’s Mary’s Magnificat, the above-mentioned People, look east, and the 15th-century Nowel! Owt of your slepe aryse. And then there’s that undeniable masterpiece of the modern choral Christmas canon, John Rutter’s What sweeter music?

The singing is very fine (you even can forgive the annoying mis-pronunciation of the word “excelsis” in Ding dong! merrily on high), the organ is enlivening and inspiring, and the sound effectively captures the ambience of Durham Cathedral on those particular three days in January, 1997. You can find/purchase the recording here:

Old Christmas Return’d

Christmas music and song from past ages

The York Waits

With Richard Wistreich (voice); Robin Jeffrey (lute, guitar, cittern, theorbo)

I have to say that you probably won’t have more fun listening to a Christmas recording than you will in the company of the disc titled Old Christmas Return’d, courtesy of The York Waits, with vocal soloist Richard Wistreich and Robin Jeffrey (lute, guitar, cittern, theorbo), originally released in 1992 on Saydisc. Its subtitle tells you what you’re in for: “Christmas music and song from past ages”.

Included are many “Olde English” songs as well as French and German ones, many of which are familiar—Es ist ein ros entsprungen; In dulci jubilo; Il est né; Quittez pasteurs; Gloucestershire wassail; Joseph Lieber Joseph mein—but in the unique presentation of the York Waits, highlighting the outstanding solo voices and varied colors of the group’s wide array of early instruments, including shawms, curtals, cornett, sackbut, hurdy-gurdy, crumhorns, citterns, recorders. And, okay, the musical expertise on display here, and its particularly infectious quality, even enables you to temporarily lift your aversion to the bagpipe (two Flemish ones, with miraculous inoffensiveness, show their stuff in a rendition of The Sans Day carol).

As I said, this is just a “fun” trip through what might be described as a more “folksy” side of Christmas—but always rendered with top-notch musicianship and equal concern for style and listener enjoyment. You can find this one at one of the following (you can even hear the whole program on YouTube):

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