What better gift than music for the season in which we celebrate God, the source of all beauty, becoming man? Here are recommendations of ten outstanding albums of Christmas-themed classical pieces—both well-known and little-known—appropriate for gifting.
1. G.F. Handel: Messiah
Though especially popular at Christmas time, it is only “Part the First” of Handel’s Messiah that pertains to the season—the latter two sections address Christ’s passion and resurrection. There are some 100 versions of this magisterial work currently available, played by ensembles of various sizes and in different styles. There is even a version in German re-orchestrated by Mozart. To complicate matters further when it comes to choosing a recording, the score itself has had several incarnations; Handel adjusted the assignment of vocal parts for particular performances, taking into consideration the quality of the singers he had at hand.
Recommendation: My favorite version is that by Dunedin Consort and Players, conducted by John Butt. Played by a smallish ensemble and employing what is known as “period practice” (sprightly tempos, limited use of vibrato by vocalists and players), this recording uses the seldom-heard 1742 “Dublin version,” which is yet not so different from more common versions of the score as to upset the fan of Messiah who receives this as a gift. With glorious singing, lively playing, sensitive conducting, and excellent sound, Butt’s version is truly one of the great realizations of this work. Here is an excerpt:
2. P. I. Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker
Is there a piece of music more closely associated with the season? More than that—despite its use to the point of kitsch in advertising— it deserves a place among the greatest works in the Western canon.
Recommendation: The Nutcracker has been well served on disc, but the interpretation I most often return to is the one by the Kirov Orchestra under the baton of Valery Gergiev. Predictably, Russians play this music better than anyone else, and thought speeds tend to be fast in this realization, not one number feels unduly rushed, and the overall effect is one of excitement mixed with enchantment. Here is the overture to the ballet from this recording:
3. Hector Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ
Little remembered today, save for “The Shepherds’ Farewell,” which pops up surprisingly often on classical Christmas CDs, Hector Berlioz’ complete oratorio is a work that deserves a better fate, as it is a true masterpiece. Berlioz called it a “sacred trilogy,” and its sections describe Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, the flight of the holy family into Egypt, and the safe arrival of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in the town of Sais. L’Enfance du Christ is operatic in certain sections, quietly devotional in others, and unabashedly dramatic when necessary. Berlioz’ unique sound-world is unmistakable throughout. With this work the self-professed agnostic came closest to revealing that in truth the Hound of Heaven was never far behind him.
Recommendation: The only period-instrument recording of this work, and one appropriately played by French forces, the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, conducted by the Belgian, Philippe Herreweghe.
Here is the delightful “The Shepherds’ Farewell” by another set of performers:
4. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Christmas Eve Suite
Another rarity—perhaps it is because the composer himself is seriously underrated, or because the opera from which the suite is drawn tells the decidedly not-so-heartwarming tale of the Devil’s attempt to steal souls and a priest’s effort to seduce a young Russian woman. Be that as it may, the Christmas Eve Suite, at some twenty-five minutes, is of a perfect length to be included in seasonal concerts, and the nasty details of its underlying story can be ignored as one revels in its wordless music. The suite’s magical opening, depicting the stars and comets against the dark, cold Russian sky, is unforgettable. The piece ends with rousing dances so characteristic of the composer.
Recommendation: Once again, I am recommending a version of a work played by a composer’s compatriots, this one by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Igor Golovschin.
Here is another recording of the full suite:
5. William Henry Fry: Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony
American composer William Henry Fry wrote the highly enjoyable Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony in 1853, deeming it at the time “the longest instrumental composition ever written on a single subject, with unbroken continuity.” This claim, which is probably true, is quite surprising, as is the fact that the legend of Santa Claus was already ingrained in American culture eight years prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War. Fry counted composer Hector Berlioz among his important influences, and one can hear echoes of Berlioz’ grand orchestral effects in the piece, though Fry’s voice is his own. The Santa Claus Symphony is likely the first use of the recently-invented saxophone in an orchestral work. There are even a few good melodies here. Though termed a symphony, it is really a tone poem, depicting a series of scenes:
The trumpet announces the Saviour’s birth, and the celestial host takes up the chorus. The exultation is broken by loud discords as some of the angels fall away in anger, but harmonious triumph concludes the section. Now a Christmas Eve party. reunited family, dancing, and general frivolity are depicted in pell-mell joy An impending snowstorm arrives in the brass, but the dancing resumes, quieter this time as the party-goers leave for home. As sleep descends, Fry employs one of his favorite devices, the setting of text to instrumental declamation. We hear The Lord’s Prayer in syllabic cadence on the upper strings, followed by ‘Rock-a-by baby’ on the soprano saxophone. Muted strings even mimic the baby’s breathing. The snowstorm again comes into view, and in the middle of it is a traveller (the solo double bass). Lost and alone, his moans are heard through the wind as he perishes. But this depressing scene shifts as Santa Claus enters, with the voice of the high bassoon, here in his horse-drawn sleigh. Down the chimney he slides with flutes accompanying; plucked strings signify the clicking of toys being dropped into stockings. The children still sleep Santa leaves, the sound of hooves and bells receding into the distance. Up in the sky, extremely high violins portray a chorus of angels singing the familiar Adeste fideles. The sun rises on Christmas Day. The house awakens to the sounds of ‘Get up!’ on the horn and ‘Little Bo-peep’ on the trumpets as the children play The beginning of the work reappears, as does the Adeste fideles, as Santa Claus closes in a hymn of praise.*
Recommendation: The only recording, under Tony Rowe, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, coupled with other non-seasonal works by Fry, is excellent. Here is the recording:
6. Victor Hely-Hutchinson: Carol Symphony
South African-born Victor Hely-Hutchinson based this four-movement work on themes from traditional carols: “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the “Coventry Carol,” “The First Nowell,” and “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” It’s a fun way to hear these tunes in orchestral guises and thus prevent tiring of them.
Recommendation: The recording by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, under Gavin Sutherland is coupled with other Christmas-themed, symphonic works by British composers. A delightful album all around! Here is the full work:
7. J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio
One of a trio of works for important Christian feast days that Bach composed late in life, the two-and-half-hour-long Christmas oratorio is actually a series of six cantatas intended for celebrations on various days through the twelve days of Christmas: the birth of Jesus, the annunciation to the shepherds, the adoration of the shepherds, the presentation of Jesus, the journey of the Magi, and the adoration of the Magi. The music draws on earlier, secular works by the composer.
Recommendation: The interpretation by Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale is an amazing bargain.
Here is the dramatic opening chorus of the Christmas Oratorio from a live performance with different forces:
8. Camille Saint-Saëns: Christmas Oratorio
Devotional rather than dramatic, Saint-Saëns’ short (thirty-five minutes or so) oratorio on the Christmas story is a work of great beauty if little variety. The trio for tenor, bass, and soprano is especially exquisite.
Recommendation: The recording by Anders Eby is excellent and as a welcome bonus is coupled with a sacred Christmas work by Ottorino Respighi.
Here is the full work in another interpretation:
9. Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Christmas Carols
Written for baritone, chorus, and orchestra, Vaughan Williams’ twelve-minute work incorporates several English folk carols.
Recommendation: The excellent interpretation by Richard Hickox is coupled with two fascinating, forgotten Christmas-themed works by the composer, in their own recordings: On Christmas Night, dramatization of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and The First Nowell, music for a nativity play that uses tunes from several carols.
Here is the full work in another interpretation:
10. Benjamin Britten: A Ceremony of Carols
Arranged for a boys’ choir, solo voices, and harp, this eleven-movement work takes its Middle-English text partly from The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems.
1. Procession (Einzug; an adaptation of Hodie Christus natus est)
2. Wolcum Yole! (Willkumm, Jul!): Welcome Yule
3. There is no Rose (Es ist kein Ros): There Is No Rose Of Such Virtue
4a. That Yongë Child (Wann bub dies Kindlein)
4b. Balulalow (Bubaideli)
5. As dew in Aprille (Wie Tau im Aprill)
6. This little Babe (Der kleine Knab)
7. Interlude (Zwischenspiel) [Omitted if performing the piano version]
8. In Freezing Winter Night (In kalter Wintersnacht)
9. Spring Carol (Frühlings-Chor)
10. Deo Gracias (Deo Gracias)
11. Recession (Abgang; also an adaptation of Hodie Christus natus est)
Recommendation: The fine recording by the New London Children’s Choir under Ronald Corp includes other works by Britten as a bonus.
Here is another, live performance of the full work, which employs a female choir in lieu of a boys’ choir:
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*From Kile Smith’s essay for the recommended Naxos album