The pile of Christmas albums this year is smaller, but the balance has changed: much novelty and baroque discovery of outstanding choirs, only one (in this selection) in the special category of seasonal celebrities, tinsel and shame. First: a coveted new recording of Handel’s Messiah (Pentatone), the traditional Christmas play despite its Passiontide credentials, with energetic and lean performances by Rias Kammerchor Berlin and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, conducted by Justin Doyle, with top soloists Julia Doyle, Tim Mead, Thomas Hobbs and Roderick Williams.
Alpha & O: Music for Advent and Christmas (Resonus) from the choirs of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, conductor Edward Wickham, offers contemporary and simple works by Judith Weir, Hannah Kendall, Diana Burrell, Christopher Fox and more. The well-pierced combination of mixed and girl’s choirs makes for a winning and ethereal combination.
For old Christmas carols made new, from the plain song to Away in a Manger to a medley written in 2017 by Rosephanye Powell, try Chanticleer sings Christmas (Warner Classics), from the American male a cappella voice choir. Its folkloric cover of snow scenes hides a well-conceived program, the chorus only a dozen but mixed, of course, with a West Coast flair.
If you prefer a more resonant mystical sound, choose Hail King of Angels (CRD) of the Keble College Choir, Oxford, recorded at Buckfast Abbey, Devon with his sonora Ruffatti Organ. The selection includes family carols featuring works by, among others, Britten, Richard Rodney Bennett and John Tavener.
Christmas in Puebla (Delphian) for the agile young set Golden age It evokes the lively, dance-infused spirit of a 17th-century Christmas in Mexico – all unknown and brilliantly done. The birds and bells of Oxfordshire appear in Songs of the heart (Circlemusic), vocal group debut Circle, built on a winter theme, rather than Christmas, with a traditional folk element. Many James Bowman fans will be delighted to hear the countertenor come out of retirement for a star appearance.
And since you think you’ve overdosed on holiday food, here’s this: the world’s leading tenor Jonas kaufmannalong with the celestial choir, harp, orchestra and big band, he has released a double album of favorite Christmas songs from around the world. It is the first one. Scrooge might wish it the last. Her slow Silent Night outperforms Ol ‘Blue Eyes’s, and the twist factor is high when she goes up on Mariah Carey’s whistle register. All I want for Christmas is you.
But that voice, those vocal skills. Kaufmann is not ashamed, why should we be? He’s having a happy little Christmas himself (he sings that one too). There are sleigh bells and roasted chestnuts and snow on the snow. If you are more of a Winterreise Than a guy from Winter Wonderland, this is not for you. Be charitable. As it says on the box: It’s Christmas.
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