Six of the best… Christmas discs

From Bach's Christmas Oratorio to Adams's El niño, Helen Wallace selects the best recordings of festive classical works to listen to this yuletide


Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV248
Christine Schäfer, Bernarda Fink, Werner Güra, Gerald Finley, Christian Gerhaher; Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 8869711225-2

You can never have too much Bach at Christmas, so let’s start with the work the exhausted cantor cobbled together especially for the festival out of some secular cantatas (BWV 213-5). Naturally, Bach being Bach, no compromises spoiled his inspired six-part act of recycling: from the radiant Sinfonia that sets the scene for the nativity, the memorable seasonal chorales, and the exquisite lullaby 'Schlafe, mein Liebster', this is a work of heavenly coherence. Harnoncourt’s latest reading has spirit, warmth and grandeur, and moving contributions from mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink and soprano Christine Schäfer.

King’s College Choir: Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (2008)
King’s College Choir, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury EMI 686 0822

Few occasions are as evocative of Christmas as the service from King's College, Cambridge. The miracle is the annual refreshment of a tradition with new commissions. This 2008 service included Judith Weir’s magical 'Illuminare, Jerusalem' (1985) with its buoyant rhythms and spooky organ bass, the aptly titled 'What Sweeter Music' by John Rutter (1987) and the premiere of Dominic Muldowney's pungent, arresting Mary. These sit alongside the famous 'Once in Royal' and some exquisitely-performed favourites, including Howells's 'A Spotless Rose', Tavener’s 'The Lamb', and 'In Dulci Jubilo'. Press play on the audio player above to hear a clip from this disc.

Britten: Ceremony of Carols
Westminster Cathedral Choir/David Hill Hyperion CDA 66220

Though originally written for a female chorus, the child Britten was never so vividly in evidence as in this string of festive pearls. The music cries out to be sung by the vulnerable, bright, almost translucent sound of boy trebles, from the icy 'In Freezing Night' to the dazzling canonic 'This little babe'. Framed by a plainchant Hodie Christus natus est, this processional work gives a real feeling of moving within a church, heightened by the haunting resonance of medieval modalism in the music. Hyperion’s recording captures boyish vigour haloed in the awesome acoustic of Westminster Cathedral. 

Vaughan Williams: Hodie; Fantasia on Christmas Carols
Guildford Choral Society/Hilary Davan Wetton Naxos 8.570439 

A very different Hodie, this time by Vaughan Williams. Beside the taut architecture and distilled art of Britten, it can feel a little rambling and indulgent, but his recreation of a Christmas service, with the lessons here sung by a girl's choir, is great festive fun. This new recording presents the work with intimacy and warmth. In the much-loved Fantasia on Christmas Carols for baritone (here Stephen Gadd), chorus and orchestra, the composer delved into England’s rich carol heritage, beginning with the mournful ‘This is the truth sent from above‘ and including ‘On Christmas night all Christians sing’ and the ‘Gloucestershire Wassail’.

Poulenc: Christmas Motets
Polyphony/Stephen Layton Hyperion CDA 67623

If audience participation muddies the join-in carols in the King’s disc, here’s something cool, poised and honed to perfection. The breathtakingly precise Polyphony under Stephen Layton sing my favourite performance of these exquisite motets. Poulenc gives us the eery depth in ‘O magnum mysterium’, the inimitable delicacy of ‘Videntes stellam’ and breaks into peals of robust joy with ‘Hodie christus nadie est’. There’s nothing quite like this sequence in all Christmas music – the innocence of pure driven snow mixed with arch Parisian style.

John Adams: El niño
Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, Dawn Upshaw, Willard White, German SO/Kent Nagano Nonesuch 7559 79634-2

I was lucky enough to witness the premiere of El niño with Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson singing the part of Mary, a memorably moving occasion. Peter Sellars’ production was overloaded with video footage and hand signs, but the score itself is one of Adams most direct and heartfelt. Truly, a Messiah for the 21st century, inflected with Latin American folk music and poetry. There’s the simplicity of children’s songs bound together with a taut narrative and gorgeous arias. Adams’ glittering orchestration with his characteristic floating harmonies works to great effect.

Audio clip: Rutter: 'What Sweeter Music'
King's College, Cambridge EMI 686 0822


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