The twelve (plus one) CDs of Christmas
Here's my personal choice for Christmas CDs, with links to retailers or artist homepages. The first twelve are unchanged from last year, but I've added one worthy item from beyond the confines of classical music.
In the category of "Famous Opera Singers Take to the Studio in the Heat of Summer to Record Christmas Carols", two complementary CDs stand out. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf includes some relatively rare German carols in her wonderful collection. Charles Mackerras's arrangements provide the perfect backdrop for the soprano's intimate and radiant voice. It doesn't take a fancy blogger to recommend anything by the most famous opera singer of the last 50 years. But neither should one resist the abbondanza of Luciano Pavarotti's "O Holy Night". Besides, the Maestro was my late mother's favorite.
For those who like your carols, like your vegetables, to be plucked locally, do we have a pair of CDs for you! To the left, the "world chamber music" of the Pioneer Consort and "Noel." To the right, "Mr. Christmas Medley" himself, Peter Blanchette and his "Archguitar Christmas." You could play these all day and not tire of them (don't ask me how I know this).
Of course, Christmas ain't begun until the little boys sing. That is, until the Choir of King's College, Cambridge perform their annual "Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols" (coming up at 10 am on Christmas Eve on WFCR, with a re-broadcast Christmas morning at 10). On the left is the CD set of the 2008 Festival. On the right, for musical locavores, is Connecticut's own children's choir, Chorus Angelicus (boys and girls), and their charming and exquisitely performed "Christmas Angelicus." You might also give a try to their follow-up album, "What Child is This?," which has less overlap with "Lessons and Carols."
How 'bout putting together a bunch of incredibly talented musicians, and setting them loose on fun and imaginative arrangements of popular carols? We have just the thing. First, there's violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and friends helping to make the season "Merry." Then, Imani Winds bring their own jazzy virtuosity to "This Christmas." It sounds like everyone was having a good time. So will you.
If you're looking for Christmas collections that depart from the standard Anglo-American fare, here are two you'll want to hear. The superb Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir explore the rich choral traditions of Estonia, Russia and Ukraine in their luminous CD "A New Joy -- Orthodox Christmas." And the French-Canadian group Strada, true to their name, take to the streets of the Mediterranean and environs in their rambunctious CD "Nadal."
After the tree is trimmed, the kids are sent off to bed and the batteries have been installed, you might crave some quiet Christmas music to soothe the nerves and nourish the soul. The music doctor's advice is to enjoy these two CDs and sleep peacefully until morning. On their "Christmas with Chanticleer," the eponymous male choir invites soprano Dawn Upshaw to join them for a few selections, including an ineffably beautiful rendition of Hugo Distler's setting of "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" ("Lo, how a rose e'er blooming"). And on their "Wolcum Yule," the female quartet Anonymous 4 wolcum, er, welcome historic harp specialist Andrew Lawrence-King to provide magical accompaniments to Celtic and English carols.
And now for something completely different! I've written previously of my admiration for Sufjan Stevens, the Brooklyn-based musician, and one of the most creative folks to be found under the broad umbrella of "indie music." A singer, multi-instrumentalist and composer, Stevens is also a person of Christian faith, which has underpinned his music throughout his recording career. In 2005, Stevens issued "Songs for Christmas," a box of five EPs made during the previous five years, basically as musical Christmas cards for friends. It's a fun set, but not among his most important releases. Far more formidable is the new follow-up, "Silver & Gold," a five-CD set recorded from 2006-12. Ranging from reverent to bizarre, and from good-natured covers to heartfelt originals, "Silver & Gold" tracks a period when Stevens was not putting out much music but developing as an artist. Listening to each CD in order is like (and it does not embarrass me to say this) listening to a great composer slowly but surely moving from one creative period to another, trying out new ideas and searching for new modes of expression. If you like creative music, and also seek the true meaning of Christmas amid the bustle, noise and commerce, "Silver & Gold" is very highly recommended. Here's to health, happiness and great music!