Handel & Haydn Society Excels in Choral Christmas Music

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Yes, "Joy to the World: An American Christmas,” includes its share of modern British composers, old English carols, and a couple of German hymns. But if the title isn't entirely consistent, the album makes its point in subtler ways, tracing carols as they traveled between the U.S., England and Europe. The Handel & Haydn Society is well qualified to tell this story, being nearly 200 years old and around since some of these carols were first popular.

The album – recorded at WGBH in Boston – starts with a single pure voice, an a cappella rendition of “I wonder as I wander” and moves on to more elaborate choral arrangements including Morten Lauridsen’s sumptuous setting of “O Magnum Mysterium,” Charles Ives’s eloquent “A Christmas Carol” and three takes of “In dulci jubilo” (the 14th century original and arrangements by Robert Pearsall, from 1837, and Hieronymous Praetorius). There are also two versions of "O Little Town of Bethlehem," one in the familiar American version and another in the English approach.

Contemporary arrangements of ancient texts are particularly illuminating, including Rutter’s “There is a Flower," based on an early-15th century text, and James Bassi’s arrangement of the 14th century “Quem pastores laudavere." H&H doesn’t overlook old favorites either, and brings a lithe approach to “Joy to the World,” “The Shepherd’s Carol” and “Carol of the Bells," among others.

Joy to the World: An American Christmas
Handel and Haydn Society, Harry Christophers (CORO)
Available at Arkivmusic.com

Sidebar: Three Other Holiday Albums to Consider

The Bach Choir of Bethlehem: "A Child's Christmas in Bethlehem" (Analekta)
Available at Arkivmusic.com 

This album contains a few Christmas poems and stories delivered in earnest narration. But the mix of carols – spanning seven centuries and five languages – is refreshingly un-schmaltzy and non-clichéd. There are gems from Italy ("Dormi Dormi"), Spain ("A La Nanita Nana"), France ("Noel Nouvelet") and Nigeria (the joyous "Betelehemu"). This Pennsylvania-based choir sings with clarity and warmth throughout.


Harmonie Ensemble: Ellington & Strayhorn/Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Suites (Harmonia Mundi)
Available at Arkivmusic.com

Steven Richman's Harmonie Ensemble/New York has been a fixture on New York's classical music (and occasionally jazz) scene since the 1980s. Here it presents both Tchaikovsky's 1892 suite and the swinging 1960 remake by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The jazz arrangements are full of good-humored, brassy wah-wahs and growling saxophones, all backed by a crisp rhythm section. This is the first time that the Ellington-Strayhorn Nutcracker has been recorded in over 50 years and while it's hard to compete with the original, the modern sound recording coupled with the solid performances make this worth our attention.


Theater of Voices, Paul Hillier, conductor: "Carols From The Old & New Worlds"
Available at Arkivmusic.com

In this 1994 recording, reissued this fall, Paul Hillier assembled an hour-long program of 24 carols in the English, American and Germanic traditions, plus a tune by Jean Sibelius and two Latin pieces published in Finland in the late 16th Century. Nothing feels routine here – “Greensleeves” is sung to new words and familiar tunes like "While shepherds watched" and "Hark! The herald angels sing" are given different melodies.

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