I expect most of us have favourite collections of festive music, cherished discs dutifully dusted off at Christmastide to provide a backing track for decorating the tree, cooking the turkey or just something to sit down and listen to as we reflect on the message of the season. But despite these staples, from A Ceremony of Carols to Michael Bublé, every year the record labels offer up a plethora of newbies to tempt our jaded ears.
So, which deserve a listen and which are best left on the shelf. And do any deserve elevating to the top table? Here is a roundup of a dozen recent releases for the 12 Days of Christmas ranked in reverse order 12 to 1 to help you decide where to spend your dollars and cents.
12. Meine Schönsten Weihnachtslieder
Daniel Behle t, Oliver Schnyder Trio
First up is a disc of traditional German favourites, cunningly arranged by German tenor Daniel Behle. The Oliver Schnyder Trio comprise Andreas Berger on percussion, guitarist Takeo Sato and Alexander Kuralionok on accordion and between them they create an appealingly folky atmosphere in a mix of Lutheran hymns and jolly (well, jolly for German-speakers) Christmas songs. You’ll probably recognise a handful, German or not, and Behle makes a tangy-toned guide while his arrangements stay firmly on the right side of cheesy. If you enjoy Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen and get a rise out of Der Weihnachtsmann hat einen Sack – in which Behle manages to drop in a quote from Dichterliebe (ho ho ho) – this may be a disc for you. Otherwise, one for the German rellies.
11. Silent Night – Early Christmas Music and Carols
Arianna Savall and Petter Udland Johansen
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi G010003964009K
Arianna Savall is the sweet-toned child of Jordi Savall and the late Montserrat Figuerras and has clearly inherited her parents’ taste for early music. These are felicitous arrangements of traditional carols, but although there’s a strong hint of medieval in the choice of instruments and modal harmonies, it feels closer to folk than classical. If the fact that The Holly and the Ivy, for example, is actually a 19th-century carol doesn’t bother you, there is much to enjoy here. The recording is clean and the atmosphere exudes thoughtful affection. A word of warning, Norwegian vocalist Petter Udland Johansen, the main singer here, has a fairly strong Scandinavian accent. If that’s fine, and the fact that the disc is masquerading as Early Christmas Music doesn’t bother you, then this gentle disc gets a gentle recommendation.
10. Snow in Summer
Move MCD 584
Another Northern-influenced disc comes from all-female, art-meets-folk group Evergreen Ensemble. Between them, Shane Lestideau, Claire Patti, Jennifer Eriksson and Samantha Cohen hail from Melbourne, Sydney and Geelong and here sing a selection of Scottish music that may not be specifically for Christmas, but carries an unmistakable echo of cold nights and warm fires. “During the 18th century, in Scotland, folk songs were regularly performed alongside Corelli and Vivaldi with no notion of one style being greater than the other,” the marketing blurb goes, so Ca’ the Yowes sits next to Sonata XI for Viola da Gamba by Lorenzo Bocchi. There’s even a commission, the attractive Odd Ditty by Australian compsoser Alice Chance. So, not entirely Christmassy, but an appealing disc for folk-lovers.
9. Verbum Caro Factum Est
Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan is one of the world’s finest baroque ensembles and this disc of Christmas music is performed as classily as one might expect. The repertoire isn’t especially adventurous – mostly favourites like O Come All Ye Faithful and the ubiquitous Silent Night – but the a cappella choir sounds divine while Suzuki intersperses the hymns and carols with a number of Louis-Claude Daquin’s Noëls (essentially keyboard variations on popular French Christmas songs). The CD loses marks for a certain lack of originality in choice of repertoire, and the organ pieces don’t always seem perfectly interspersed, but this would make a good choice for anyone wanting to leaven a disc of carols with something less usual.
8. Un Niño Nos Es Nasçido (A Child for Us Is Born)
Ensemble Phoenix Munich/Joel Frederiksen
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 19075802592
It may seem surprising that Munich-based Ensemble Phoenix under their lively music director Joel Frederiksen should choose a disc of Christmas music from Spain and Latin America in the 16th and 17th centuries, but this release has plenty of fire and jollity about it. There are some usual suspects here in terms of composers: Cabezón, Victoria, Morales and Guerrero, but also some genuine rarities like Carceres, Bartomeu, Cascante, Mudarra and the always engaging Ruiz de Ribayaz. The program is beautifully put together to both flow while offering plenty of contrasts. So, Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium – beautifully resonantly caught – piles into a lively dance in the form of Mateo Flecha el Viejo’s catchy Ríu Ríu Chíu. Lovely baroque guitar work too from Paul Kieffer. Different and definitely engaging.
7. Christmas Variations
Megan Reeve harp
Move MCD 585
Australian harpist Megan Reeve offers something different as she explores Christmas music from around the world and across the ages. Seasonal favourites like O Come All Ye Faithful and We Three Kings (in three different versions) are there, but in smart and thoughtful arrangements by a host of clever musicians new and old all of which ensure that this is far from simply a disc of pretty harp music for Christmas. Britten’s delicious Interlude from A Ceremony of Carols is included, as well as Marcel Samuel-Rousseau’s substantial 19th-century Variations Pastorales sur un Vieux Noël. There’s even a take on the Australian Christmas lullaby The Silver Stars are in the Sky. Nicely recorded too.
6. 100 Years of Nine Lessons & Carols
King’s College Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury
Kings College KGS0033
OK, so this isn’t exactly new, but for many, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College. This two-disc collection celebrates the service’s 100th year with a disc of historical recordings under music directors David Willcocks, Philip Ledger and Stephen Cleobury (some not heard since their original broadcasts on the BBC) that includes what were world premiere performances of contemporary carols commissioned by the College from composers like Judith Weir, Arvo Pärt, Thomas Adès and John Tavener. The second part of the album features brand-new recordings by today’s choir of the traditional favourites. If you don’t already have this, it should be in your collection.
Il Verbo in Carne
Kammerorchester Basel/Riccardo Minasi
Nicola Porpora is a composer getting a great deal of respect these days, and often rightly deserved. This recording is a real find – essentially a 271-year-old Italian Christmas Oratorio entitled Il Verbo in Carne (The Word Made Flesh) – and played with real bite and spirit by the wonderful Kammerorchester Basel under the always impressive Riccardo Minasi. A top-notch line up of singers (Terry Wey, Martin Vanberg and Roberta Invernizzi) go for gold, bringing operatic flare to a sacred music drama. A typical work of the Neapolitan School, the oratorio tells the story of the nativity through arias sung by allegorical figures. There’s a lovely Pastoral Sinfonia too. It may not be Bach, but then what is? A great gift for an early music lover.
4. Songs of Winter and Christmas
A Celtic-inspired selection of carols and songs comes from the all-female vocal ensemble Papagena taking their theme from winter rather than the nativity per se. The music journeys from the Middle Ages up to today with Christmas anthems rubbing shoulders with an arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s The River. The singing is pretty darn good with voices bathed in a warm aural halo. Highlights include a ravishing performance of the medieval song Maria durch ein Dornwald ging, a toe-tapping Nowell, Tidings True There Be Come New with drum accompaniment and a wonderfully tricksy take on Gaudete!
3. The Mystery of Christmas
ORA Singers/Suzi Digby
Harmonia Mundi HMM905305
Although the marketing blurb for this album suggests it is “a treasure chest of offerings, some familiar, some less so” I’d suggest only the first and last parts of that are true. In other words, expect to find treasures, but expect the unexpected. The disc focuses both on the role of the Virgin Mary in the nativity story and both conductor – the excellent Suzi Digby – and choir are superb, singing with pinpoint accuracy despite the presence of some tricky music. With the exception of Byrd’s O Magnum Mysterium, Tallis’ Videte Miraculum and a couple of medieval carols, most of this is new music, though none of it is aggressively so. Finds and pleasures galore include Adrian Peacock’s wriggly Venite, Gaudete!, Judith Weir’s radiant Drop down, ye heavens, from above and Sametz’s joyous arrangement of Gaudete.
2. A Renaissance Christmas
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
If you already possess the Sixteen’s Traditional Christmas Carol Collection volumes one and two – essential listening in our house – or their more modern traversal on 2016’s Song of the Nativity, then you won’t need persuading to invest in this new album. Harry Christophers brings his trademark commitment to music and message to bear on a raft of Christmas carols, anthems and chants from the medieval up to the end of the Renaissance. The choir are on top form, ideally recorded, whether intoning the simplicity of Veni, Veni Emmanuel or rejoicing in Byrd’s euphoric This day Christ was born. Personal favourites include Sweelinck’s buoyant Hodie Christus natus est and Lasso’s richly-textured Videntes Stellam Magi. They don’t come much better than this.
1. Snow Queens
Juice Vocal Ensemble
Resonus Classics RES10224
OK, this may not be to everyone’s taste, but my number one pick is certainly something different. Juice Vocal Ensemble are an experimental female vocal trio and this collection of songs, carols and winter ditties come from a raft of gifted living composers. The collection includes new works and arrangements by each of the group’s three members as well as music by Tarik O’Regan, Bernard Hughes David Breslin, Simon Speare and a new commission from Emily Hall. Voices are fresh, ensuring that three womens voices never become monotonous. Try the haunting opener by Juice member Kerry Andrews (Apples, Plums, Cherries) if you need convincing. Some of the arrangements get downright challenging (Chris Warner’s Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind has them blowing into and tapping on empty bottles) but there’s a lot here to enjoy and plenty of food for thought – not always at a premium on a Christmas disc!