My first two posts were mostly devoted to large-scale pieces; this one is for miniatures, carol collections, and other minor or miscellaneous loveliness.
Several people have mentioned the Cambridge Singers’ collections. My favorite of these is Christmas Night. I think it has the most interesting repertoire and plenty of really good singing. My favorite piece is the Boris Ord “Adam Lay Ybounden” (which, incidentally is one of the texts whose false doctrine makes me saddest–there are a half-dozen settings of this which would be accessible for ward choirs and great fun! Still, I guess I prefer not believing in original sin :)). Their stuff is all good, though, although it seems to me that their sound has gotten too prettified and precious lately. Which album you pick should probably be a function of how much John Rutter you want.
However, if you want to hear the Cambridge Singers doing some really good stuff, pick up their 1993 recording of Poulenc’s Gloria, which contains, besides the glorious title work, four small and perfect “Motets pour le temps de NoÃ«l.” These are twentieth-century settings of medieval chant texts–O Magnum Mysterium, Quem Vidistis Pastores, Videntes Stellam, and Hodie Christus Natus Est (same text as the Vaughan Williams begins with, but, of course, a completely different treatment–as raucous a good time as choral music geeks are ever likely to have!). Don’t let the “twentieth-century” part scare you. These are melodic and accessible and great. I have fantasies of someday building a Christmas sacrament meeting program around them. (One could wish that this recording had been made in a slightly less resonant hall, and with a couple of Russian basses to add some ruggedness to the low, low bass parts, but then one would be quibbling, and one oughtn’t really.)
Another favorite group of mine is Joel Cohen’s Boston Camerata. They are small, and their singing is a little rawer and more energetic than the Cambridge Singers, but they are terrifically musical and really exciting. An American Christmas is their impeccably-researched paean to the little-known American tradition which existed alongside the reproduction and imitation of European classical music in the colonies. Joel Cohen’s impassioned introductory essay in the liner notes is delicious, and the music itself is everything that Christmas music sometimes isn’t–unrepetitive, fresh, vital, energetic. You get the picture. This is unlike any other Christmas album you own, and deserves a listen. This group has also recorded A Medieval Christmas, A Renaissance Christmas, and A Baroque Christmas. All are expertly performed and carefully annotated–the most pleasant music history lesson one could possibly hope for!
If you like the earliest music on those, you should not miss the two Christmas recordings by Anonymous 4: On Yoolis Night and Wolcum Yule: Celtic and British Songs and Carols. On Yoolis Night is for purists–just 4 incredibly beautiful voices, perfect intonation, gorgeous blend, good recording quality. Even I, querulous and snobbish criticaster that I am, can find nothing to quibble with in this recording. It is beautiful enough to make medieval plainsong and early, early polyphonic stuff vivid and appealing–no mean feat. Wolcum Yule is maybe a little more accessible, with at least a few songs like “The Cherry Tree Carol” that one might sing along with. It adds a few instruments, including Irish harp, baroque harp, and psaltery–“rollicking” would probably be taking the description a bit too far, but there are lively and fun moments interspersed with the ethereal perfection of the voices. This album lets you breathe a little more–the first feels so delicate and perfect that I’m always afraid to put it on if I can’t just sit still and listen worshipfully. Anyway, if you like vocal music at all, you owe it to yourself to hear Anonymous 4. Now.
Strangely enough, though I would certainly choose the Romantic period if pressed to find the musical Zeitgeist that appeals the most to me, I can’t think of a collection of stuff from this period.
Mendelssohn’s little-known Sechs SprÃ¼che have been in the Christmas rotation a lot at our house lately–they’re not all Christmas pieces (they’re called (approximately translated) “Six Anthems for Different Times of the Year”), but there’s one for Advent, one for Christmas, and one for New Year’s. It’s a good enough excuse for me to put on this recording of Mendelssohn’s Choral Music. Not that I really need much of an excuse for that–the Corydon Singers are just great–clean, bright, warm sound; polished, but not precious technique; nice balance with really solid bass. This stuff is a lot more fun if you know German, but the liner notes are good, and all the texts are translated.
Brahms also wrote lots of stuff that fits at Christmastime, and if you don’t know his small choral works, you are missing some great stuff. The best collection I know, also by the Corydon Singers, is this one . Texts appropriate for Christmas include: Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, Regina coeli laetare, Ave Maria. (Same caveat as with the Mendelssohn, easier to fall in love with if the German speaks to you, but good translations and notes). Although it’s not the exact text of Simeon’s speech, I always think of “Mit Fried’ und Freud'” (the last section of “Warum ist das Licht gegeben”) as Brahms’ Nunc Dimitis, and it’s the last thing I play on Christmas night.
Which seems like a good place to finally stop for this year–if you’ve read this far, thanks for indulging me.