Best of 2016: Classical Christmas Albums
Monday, December 12, 2016 - 01:24 PM
The “best of lists” just keep coming. While we're at it, let’s take a look at some of our favorite Christmas-specific releases from 2016. The albums on this list vary from intimate to magnificent, but each one furthers those feelings of holiday joy. If you’re looking for some new tunes to add to your wintry playlists, it’ll be worth it to spend some time with the music below. You can expect to hear selections from these recent releases included in our on-air rotation, too.
Carolae: Music for Christmas — James Whitbourn
In his liner notes, Whitbourn calls this album “a fusion of two great Christmas traditions from England and America:” The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College, Cambridge; and An Evening of Readings and Carols, presented by Rider College at Princeton University. Elements of these annual concerts stretch back to the 1920s, which was also a time that saw a return to the medieval roots of the Christmas carol. Many of the angelic compositions and arrangements presented in this set evoke a medieval mood and the Missa Carolae includes a number of musical references to regional carols. Below, listen to a selection of the Missa from a recording with the Elysian Singers of London.
Song of the Nativity — The Sixteen and Harry Christophers
The central focus of this album is the emotional impact that carols are capable of delivering. The songs presented here are a mix of contemporary and traditional sounds of the season and cover 600 years of Christmas music. Christophers notes that the beauty of Christmas music lies in its humanity. The Nativity is a divine story, but the enduring traditions surrounding it — especially the music — is the result of human artistic urges. The traditional carols are stripped down to their most basic form and effortlessly fit alongside the solemnity of the contemporary pieces.
Winter — Voces8
If we had to use one word to describe this Christmas release from the UK octet, it would be “stillness.” The songs here are characterized by a texture reminiscent of the untouched snow and arrangements of compositions by composers such as Arvo Pärt and Ólafur Arnalds evoke scenes of an icy — yet beautiful — Eastern European winter. Also featured are interpretations of Rachmaninoff, Holst and the British folk song “The Snow it Melts the Soonest.”
Caroling at Ephesus — Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles
Everyone’s favorite nuns are back at it again with a selection of carols recorded within the serene walls of — prepare for a mouthful — the chapel of St. John’s Retreat House at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus. Traditional English folk tunes and carols run the show on this disc, but selections with Polish, Spanish and Burgundian origins make appearances as well. They’ve also included “Personent Hodie,” which might be the ultimate embrace of the Christmas spirit — it’s a 12th century hymn to St. Nick himself.
Handel: Messiah — Sir Andrew Davis (Conductor); Mormon Tabernacle Choir
For fans of Handel’s most famous oratorio, 2016 was a pretty solid year. Two notable recordings were released: one from Sir Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the other from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This effort represents Sir Davis’s second pass with Messiah (the other being from 1987, it too with the TSO.) Also led by his baton is the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and soloists Erin Wall, Elizabeth DeShong, Andrew Staples and John Relyea.
The MTC performance, released in March, hooks listeners up with bonus material. Included in the two-CD package is a booklet that will put a smile on the face of many a music history nerd. Notes include histories of Messiah and its relationship with the Choir. There’s also a DVD that features interviews with the guest soloists and conductor.