These are our top 10 recommendations for classical Christmas recordings. We recommend these for your consideration as holiday staples for your collection, or as choice potential stocking stuffers for your holiday gift recipients. Others are classical performer’s takes on traditional tunes; others are incredible specific performances. There are lots of good performances out there of many of these works, but we’ll give a choice recommendation for each. Feel free to quibble and recommend your own favorites! Links are provided for more information, including links to online vendors, based on the current reasonability of price and availability (Search on your own at CDBaby.com, ArkivMusic.com, CDUniverse.com, Amazon.com, and iTunes, etc. Don’t forget your local brick and mortar store – our favorite Twin Cities option is the Electric Fetus, http://www.electricfetus.com.) Enjoy and spread the cheer!
1) Ceremonies of Carols with the Philadelphia Singers and Concert Soloists of Philadelphia, with Maureen Forrester, David Gordon, and Benita Valente. This Rolf’s all-time favorite classical Christmas album. Great performances of three under-performed masterworks: Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols,” Poulenc’s “Four Motets for Christmas,” and Respighi’s “Lauda per la Natività del Signore.” Hard to find, but available new from Arkivmusic.com.
2) Bach’s Christmas Oratorio – In most countries of the world, this is THE piece to be performed at Christmas. It’s joyous and uplifting and well-nigh perfect music. Ah, Bach! Recommended recording: English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir conducted by John Elliot Gardiner.
3) Handel’s Messiah is arguably more suitably an Easter piece, but, largely because the original language was English (and because it does have a beautiful Christmas portion), it is the go-to classical Christmas piece for much of the English-speaking world. You can’t go wrong with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Chorus conducted by Margaret Hillis, with soloists Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Gwynne Howell, Keith Lewis, and Anne Gjevang.
3) Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. OK, for this one, you would probably enjoy a CD of the Suites, but you really should get a DVD of the complete ballet! Try the American Ballet Theatre one with Baryshnikov. Who could imagine a better Nutcracker?!? It’s also one of the cheaper DVD versions on Amazon.
4) Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite. OK, so it’s Ellington’s jazzy take on Tchaikovsky’s original, but Duke elevated Jazz to a timeless, classical level. Many people even prefer this version to Tchaikovsky’s original. It’s just as brilliant with orchestration and brimming with joy and charm. Get the Columbia “Three Suites” album that gives the bonus of his Suites based on Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” and Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday.” It’s currently available at Amazon for just $4.58 as an “add-on item.”
5 ) Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. This is an incredibly heart-on-the-sleeve masterpiece by Menotti. It’s possible the original TV Opera version of this has not been surpassed as far as video versions go. There is a good recording with the Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Gardens doing it, conducted by David Syrus. IF YOU EVER GET THE CHANCE TO SEE THE JAMES SEWELL BALLET DO IT LIVE, DON’T MISS IT!!!!
6 )Tallis Scholars Christmas Carols and Motets, Directed by Peter Phillips. Wonderful collection of older choral music, including Medieval Carols, settings of the Coventry Carol and Ave Maria, and German Charales by Praetorius including Es ist ein’ Ros, Joseph lieber, In dulci jubilo, and Wachet auf.” Exquisite, masterful, and informed vocal performances.
7) Kathleen Battle and Christopher Parkening, Angel’s Glory. This is one of Carrie’s all time favorite recordings, Christmas or otherwise. Beautiful performances by the inimitable soprano Kathleen Battle and guitarist Christopher Parkening.
8) Yo-Yo Ma and Friends, Songs of Joy and Peace. This CD includes a who’s who of great classical, jazz, folk, and crossover artists, mostly tied together by the idea and musical theme, “Dona Nobis Pacem.” Heavenly peace abounds!
9) This Christmas with Imani Winds. The Imani Winds is one of the world’s premiere woodwind quintets. Here they perform a wide array of familiar holiday tunes, most of which are delightfully crafted and arranged by their flutist/composer Valerie Coleman and French hornist/composer Jeff Scott.
10) Johannes Brahms Two Songs for Alto, Viola, and Piano, Op. 91. The second of these songs is the based on the Medieval Christmas lullaby carol, “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein.” (“Joseph, Dearest, Joseph Mine”). Whether or not you know and love the original tune, Brahms turns it into an indescribably beautiful lush, mellow gentle setting. Can’t decide between two available recommendations – 1) Kathleen Ferrier’s that includes Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and Rückert Lieder and Brahms Four Serious Songs along with the Op. 91 songs with Max Gilbert on viola; or, 2) Jessye Norman’s more recent recording of Brahms songs with pianist Daniel Barenboim and violist Wolfram Christ. Somewhere out there is a recording of Marian Anderson performing it with William Primrose and Franz Rupp. If you can find that, tell us how to get it!
Best wishes for a peaceful and joyous holiday season from OboeBass!