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OT Recommend a great classical music Christmas Album


kwyn

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It's kind of a wide open question, which I suspect is why you haven't gotten any responses yet, so let's see if we can qualify this in a way that will result in helpful replies.

 

For instance, do you mean classical music that has a Christmas or winter holiday thematic element, classical-style performances of well-known carols (many of which were written by classical composers such as Mendelssohn), or even classical treatments of more modern Christmas fare? And finally, what about spirituals?

 

I have plenty of suggestions in the first category, and specific recordings as well, with more research required to provide suggestions in the other categories. I can start with three suggestions for the first category, but it's pointless to provide them if that isn't the context you're interested in.

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I guess I'm not sure. The nutcracker suite was a great one. Listened last night.

 

:)

 

Also recommendations in that 1st category would be great in addition to traditional carols performed classically.

 

Thanks. And I'll definitely check out that a capella

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OK, then I have to recommend Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols", which never fails to send shivers down my spine, but really needs to be sung by a children's choir for full effect as the boys' unchanged voices mate with the dominant harp for an intended angelic effect.

 

The songs are all scored in Olde English, which has a very musical lilt to it.

 

My favourite recording is long out of print -- the Texas Boys Choir. It can be hard to find an ideal recording as it is difficult music to perform well. Various British colleges record it frequently with different conductors, so that adds to the confusion as many of the performances sound like read-throughs.

 

Another lovely Christmas piece that really evokes the feel of the season is Bach's Christmas Oratorio, which is easy to find in single-disc excerpts if you aren't prepared to listen or pay for the whole thing. It's like a mega-cantata, and prominently features trumpets throughout. Very festive.

 

The weirdest recording is John Eliot Gardiner's, as he kind of turns it into a 3/4 waltz. Who knows; maybe that was Bach's intention. many great recordings of this work, and some overly-lethargic ones from people like Munchinger who unfortunately are also often the ones with the best soloists.

 

I'll see if I can come up with fairly specific recommendations for current recordings that are likely to be streamed, when I get home from work tonight, or tomorrow.

 

It's a bit harder to think of Christmas albums per se, as they go out of print so quickly. I have some faint visual images of some that I remember a bit better than others.

 

Some will say that you can never go wrong with the Robert Shaw Chorale (Atlanta) or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but my recollection is that those works are mostly a capella and not everyone likes that.

 

I am a huge fan of French Christmas Music, by Faure and others, but can't remember off-hand if there's been a concerted effort to gather onto one disc. You would recognize many of the carols in particular, whether sung in French or in English. Generally lots of trumpets.

 

So yes, not too surprisingly, much of the classical Christmas Music is very vocally inclined. And composers like Vaughan Williams wrote a ton of stuff for the holidays as well. Hard to even pick where to start with composers like that, or people like Mendelssohn, Haydn, and of course Handel.

 

Things that are as popular as The Nutcracker tend to have more mediocre recordings than good ones, as it's an automatic cash cow.

 

I'm very fond of Andre Previn's readings of Tchaikovsky's ballet music as he doesn't go overboard but does retain the romantic flair. As his recordings have consistently stayed in print, there's a good chance they can be found on streaming sites.

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If you want something modern. May I suggest this:

Ex-Mass by David Rees-Williams Trio:

 

https://itun.es/gb/OZI3I

 

It Is called Ex-Mass, and performed by the superb David Rees-Williams trio. It is in the classical category on iTunes but is quite jazzy also. It features lots of beautiful piano (and organ) playing and some gorgeous arrangements of Christmas carols. It has a darker overall colour than most other Christmas recordings, but that is one of the (many) things which I like about it. :)

"Turn your fingers into a dust rag and keep them keys clean!" ;) Bluzeyone
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OK, then I have to recommend Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols", which never fails to send shivers down my spine, but really needs to be sung by a children's choir for full effect as the boys' unchanged voices mate with the dominant harp for an intended angelic effect.

 

The songs are all scored in Olde English, which has a very musical lilt to it.

 

I have a small Christmas gift for you, Mark (and kwyn). Coincidentally, my daughters just performed this last week with their youth choir at WQXR's performance space in NYC, and the livestream is still streamable.

 

https://livestream.com/thegreenespace/events/6729673/videos/143846544

 

(Ceremony of Carols starts at 33:35)

 

My daughters are the soloists on "That Yonge Child" and "Balulalow.," so be gentle if you don't care for it.

 

Agreed, it's a captivating piece, whether or not your own children are singing it.

 

ONY

 

 

 

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Preferably one that's available on Google Play. Doesn't have to be piano/organ.

I notice that Google Play offers a number of recordings by The Boston Camerata (www.bostoncamerata.com), a really first-rate early music vocal ensemble.

 

They have recorded all kinds of early American, English, and medieval Christmas music. I particularly love the album called "An American Christmas."

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I thought it might have been Middle English but said Olde English to be safe. :-) Sorry about that. It's still pretty foreign to us moderners.

 

The difference between a mixed mostly-girls children's choir and an adult choir is much stronger than that between a mixed mostly-girls children's choir and an all-boys choir, so I think this live performance gets across much of the ambience and feeling of the music in its angelic glory.

 

The female voices are of course more mature though; almost adult. No insult meant, but I do thing the solos in particular benefit from being sung by the youngest train male voice possible.

 

I can tell they have a good director who pushes and challenges them, as there was no shying away from the inconstant tempi and other haunting ebb-and-flow of the music. It's a good introduction to the music for anyone who has not yet heard and fallen in love with Britten's masterpiece. The harpist did dumb down that part a bit though.

 

Weinachsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio) is of course at the opposite end of the musical spectrum, being quite bombastic and indelicate but nevertheless full of beauty and contrast. I haven't opened iTunes yet to see which recordings I have, but am about to compare my three or four "Ceremony of Carols" recordings.

 

Oh, the English choral director and composer John Taverner -- who was "discovered" by Paul McCartney and signed to Apple Records for his first few outings before he finally hit the big time in the classical world and got onto "regular" labels -- is well known for MODERN Christmas music, but he is a traditionalist so it is modern mostly in the sense of being "new".

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Inexplicably, one of the most popular Britten recordings (and consistently in print) is AWFUL; a muddle only partially salvaged by hiring a top harpist (Marisa Robles). George Guest conducts The Choir of St. John's College in Cambridge UK.

 

Far better -- but on a small label (Hyperion) so unlikely to be found on streaming services -- is David Hill's recording with The Choir of Westminster Cathedral -- the choir (in its time) for whom this collection was originally written. The recording itself is too distant and not intimate enough though -- my only real gripe.

 

The Hyperion disc won a Critic's Choice award from Gramophone Magazine.

 

Nothing beats the Texas Boys Choir reading. My parents have this on vinyl; it never came out on CD. David Hill's reading comes the closest. He is one of the best-loved modern choral conductors (along with John Rutter).

 

Note that "Ceremony" is marked "for treble voices and harp" by the composer, so he was flexible enough to recognize that it wouldn't always be practical to gather a trained choir of boys to perform it.

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Getting back to Ralph Vaughan Williams, there's a lovely combined recording of his "Fantasia on Christmas Carols" paired with the Christmas-themed "Hodie" with Dame Janet Baker on the latter. major label so might be available streamed.

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Well, my suggestions for Bach's Christmas Oratorio are pretty much down to the two flawed renditions that I already mentioned.

 

You can go for the superior vocalists/soloists at lethargic tempi and overly-large orchestra (for baroque) via Karl Munchinger (never out of print), or the idiosyncratic rendition by John Eliot Gardiner (which I am finally growing to accept, as it is appropriate light for the era even if the vocalists aren't always the best choices).

 

A third choice is on a small label (BIS) and probably not streamed: Suzuki conducting ALL of Bach's oratorios and passions.

 

BTW many organizations perform Handel's Messiah at Christmas time (or Mozart's rearrangement), but technically it is more of an Easter piece. Nevertheless it does get a lot of people in the mood for the holidays. I highly recommend the famous recording by Sir Colin Davis on Philips, with outstanding soloists and some male parts transcribed for alto for "balance".

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If Previn's Nutcracker recording isn't available -- whether the suites or the full ballet (or excerpts) -- other strong readings are from pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy (conducting the RPO), Antal Dorati (conducting the Concertgebouw), and cellist Rostropovich (conducting Boston); the latter being just the suites, and the first one (Ashkenazy) being the least likely to still be available on-line.

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Oh, you're likely to recognize some of the melodies in Bach's Christmas Oratorio, as he re-set several of his popular themes and cantatas for this new treatment (something he had to do often due to his insane deadlines, being required to produce new music for each Sunday service along with special occasions).

 

For instance, "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" (A mighty fortress is our God) shows up multiple times in various instrumentations and arrangements.

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A personal favorite - and it probably won't be familiar to many of you - is Gian Carlo Menotti's Christmas opera "Amahl and the Night Visitors". Despite the fact that it was a commissioned composition it is probably Menotti's best work, and definitely my favorite 20th century Christmas piece.

 

It was broadcast on NBC from 1951-66 every year on Christmas eve. There are a number of recordings available, but the original 1951 (mono - on RCA) is probably the best performance.

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Oh yes, I love that work to death, ever since we played part of it in High School Orchestra. But I've never been able to find a recording, and it seems to remain obscure even though there's the occasional revival.

 

I'll take it over "The Little Drummer Boy" any day. :-)

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I had forgotten one other acceptable performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, and it's the one conducted by Ton Koopman with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir.

 

In fact, Koopman is generally a good choice for anything baroque. He strikes a nice balance between authentic and modern, thankfully bypassing the romantic tradition that polluted Bach recordings up until the late 60's to early 70's (bombastic, lethargic, HEAVY).

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I misspelled John Tavener's name above as John Taverner, and had also forgotten that he had passed three years ago.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Tavener

 

As for modern choral directors who are well known for conducting classical arrangements of music not always associated with classical all that strongly, but also composing their own music fairly frequently, is John Rutter, who I may have conflated in my mind with John Tavener in an earlier post, though they are quite different in their approach (Tavener being more "serious" and Rutter being quite devout but more eager to play to, and interact with, people who aren't necessarily regular listeners of classical music).

 

I heard Rutter conducting that mega-arrangement of a gazillion carols this morning. Never liked that piece; too over-the-top. But he somehow made it palatable, toning its edges and especially giving the voices more room for expression and dominance over the rather large instrumentation.

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