The BBC Music Magazine team gets hundreds of recordings passed across our desks every month – and Christmas is no different. Sometimes, it can be an overwhelmingly large offering, so we’ve rounded up a few of our personal favourites from recent years. If you click through to the next page, you’ll find the best new recordings hitting your shelves this Christmas.
The best Christmas classical music albums and recordings
Be All Merry
The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin, Irish Chamber Orchestra/Desmond Earley
The Choral Scholars of University College, Dublin recently marked their 20th anniversary, and Be All Merry is a celebration of the high standards they have reached under founding artistic director Desmond Earley. The recording mixes interesting arrangements of familiar tunes with contemporary works, including haunting Irish-language settings by Fionntán Ó Cearbhaill and Adhamhnán Mac Domhnaill. No fewer than half the choir’s two-dozen members step out for solos, revealing the in-depth quality of Earley’s singers. The glowing tonal blend that he elicits is a constant pleasure, and there’s a real emotional connection in the performances.
Alpha & O: Music for Advent and Christmas
The Choirs of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge/Edward Wickham
The O Antiphons of English composer Christopher Fox were first performed complete by the Choir of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge in March this year, and recorded a few days later. They form the centrepiece of Alpha & O, a disc which also includes music by Judith Weir, Diana Burrell and Jeremy Thurlow. Each of Fox’s seven antiphons is preceded by the relevant Gregorian chant, setting the harmonic daring of Fox’s harmonic language in sharp juxtaposition. Some of the tight intervals test the choir, but Edward Wickham’s astute direction secures generally convincing results.
Britten: A Ceremony of Carols
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross
Harmonia Mundi HMM 905329
A vibrant, limpid performance of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols (the four-part version) sits at the heart of a new album by the mixedvoice Choir of Clare College, Cambridge. Conductor Graham Ross relishes the lustiness of ‘Wolcum Yole!’ without allowing scrappiness, and ‘There is no rose’ has a wealth of alluringly contoured dynamic detail. Tanya Houghton’s harp playing is unfailingly sensitive. A clutch of shorter pieces by Britten is also included, as are works by Ireland, Bridge and Holst. Warm blend, fresh attack and a sense of keen vitality mark all the singing, and the sound is excellent.
Chanticleer sings Christmas
Warner Classics 9029522888
The San Francisco-based, 12-man vocal group Chanticleer is now in its fifth decade, and Chanticleer Sings Christmas was recorded immediately after a run of 2019 seasonal concerts. The repertoire ranges widely, from plainsong through Renaissance composers such as Victoria and Hassler, to pieces commissioned by Chanticleer from Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, Steven Sametz and Rosephanye Powell. Technically the singing is immaculate, though some of the arrangements (‘Away in a Manger’, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’) may be a little sugarcoated for some. The sound is close, too, conveying a somewhat studiobound impression.
Sacred Treasures of Christmas
Xavier Ferros (tenor), The London Oratory Schola Cantorum/Charles Cole
The London Oratory Schola Cantorum sings mass at the school every Saturday evening in term-time, and Sacred Treasures of Christmas is a selection of the liturgical motets it uses for the holiday season. A feast of Renaissance repertoire is featured, ranging from the ringing carillons of Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus natus est to the searching introspection of Victoria’s O magnum mysterium. The 50-strong oratory choir is made up entirely of boys, and conductor Charles Cole draws singing of vernal freshness from them, with excellent ensemble and an interpretive awareness that puts many an adult choir in the shadow. This is a warmly recommended recording.
A Tudor Christmas
Trinity Boys Choir/David Swinson
An octet of singers from the Trinity Boys Choir presents seasonal music from a bygone age. Necessarily staid, perhaps, but with a warm, intimate atmosphere nonetheless.
A Winter’s Night
Winchester College Chapel Choir, Onyx Brass, Benja
Signum Classics SIGCD646
Despite a few issues with the blend of sound in the choir, the brass adds dynamism and vibrancy to this selection of carols old and new, making it a pleasantly festive listen.
Advent Live, Vol. 2
Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
Signum Classics SIGCD661
The fantastic balance of anthems, hymns and organ music leaps out in this arresting, fabulously performed Advent programme from St John’s, Cambridge.
SWR Vokalensemble/Marcus Kreed
Exaltatio: Christmas Carol
Dagmar Pecková; Musica Bohemica; Jaroslav Krček
Ave Rex Angeloroum
Choir of Keble College, Oxford/Matthew Martin
A distinctly darkerhued festive album without much in the way of tinsel and bells, but none the worse for that. The three carols by Keble choirmaster Matthew Martin are the highlight.
Christmas Concertos from Leipzig
Kammerchor der Christuskirche Karlsruhe, L’arpa Festante
Christmas Music at St Thomas’ in Leipzig
Chamber Choir Bad Homburg
Vox Clara (Latvian Medieval and Christmas music)
Schola Cantorum Riga
Advent Carols from King’s College London
The Choir of King’s College, London/Joseph Fort
A beautifully atmospheric recording of the Advent service from King’s College, London. Don’t miss the new pieces, especially George Benjamin’s and Kerensa Briggs’s.
The Gesualdo Six/Owain Park
A delightful album by an all-male a cappella group is hard to come by – all too often they’re po-faced or schmaltzy; but this is neither. An elegant blend of old and new.
In dulci jubilo
Harmonia Sacra/Peter Leech
Nimbus NI 6391
All the words from your favourite carols, but unexpected music galore – thanks to interesting new settings by a varied quartet of composers. Well sung, though the sound is quite close.
Schütz: The Christmas Story & Other Works
Yale Schola Cantorum/David Hill
Schütz’s Italianate oratorio is one of the masterpieces of the early Baroque and is performed beautifully here. Voices and instruments are superbly balanced within the rich recorded texture.
Joachim Badenhorst (clarinet), Heida Arnadottir (voals), Hilmar Jensson (guitar), Kristin Thora Haraldsdottir (viola), Eirikus Orri Olafsson (trumpet)
Winter & Winter 910 260-2
Your bleak Christmas starts here. Based on Icelandic folklore, this musical poem is dark, brooding and often eerily atmospheric. Beautiful, yes, but ‘Jingle Bells’ it most certainly isn’t.
Make we Merry
Benenden Chapel Choir, London Metropolitan Brass
The merriment here is rather sober, but not without its charms. There’s some welcome sparkle in Bednall’s brass writing and Chilcott’s entry has a wistfully sweet innocence.
O Holy Night
London Choral Sinfonia/Michael Waldron
Orchid Classics ORC 100110
A substantial Christmas banquet from Michael Waldron and a rich-toned LCS, bringing together carols both traditional and modern. Warming.
Now May We Singen: Music for Advent and Christmas
Ben Bloor (organ), Choir of Westminster School/Timothy Garrard
Signum Classics SIGCD595
As school choirs go, Westminster School’s is rather fine, its dynamic range and blend top notch. An ambitious yet attractive programme.
Nowell synge we bothe al and som: A Feast of Christmas Music in Medieval England
Gothic Voices will shortly mark its 40th anniversary, and celebrates with Nowell synge we bothe al and som, a new programme of medieval songs and motets for the Christmas season. The material is a mix of plainchant and polyphony, arranged for various combinations of the ensemble’s four members.
A Spanish Nativity
Harmonia Mundi HMM902312
Alonso Lobo’s Missa Beata Dei genitrix Maria is the anchor work in A Spanish Nativity, a new disc from the 12-voice British ensemble Stile Antico. Their ability to rivet attention is immediately obvious in an introspective and raptly controlled account of the Missa’s opening Kyrie, while the poignant Agnus Dei highlights the group’s lithe expressivity and immaculate tuning.
The Waiting Sky: Music for Advent and Christmas
Resonus Classics RES10250
Sansara released an acclaimed debut album two years ago, and its new disc The Waiting Sky adopts a similar formula of mixing old and new music. On the contemporary side, the palpitating rhythms of Judith Weir’s ‘Ave Regina caelorum’ draws a featherlight nimbleness from the choir’s 16 voices.
The Secret Life of Carols: 800 Years of Christmas Music
First Hand FHR094
How did Christmas music sound in the medieval world? We don’t know for sure, but The Telling is a group specialising in that period, and in The Secret Life of Carols they delve back centuries for answers. With two harpists sharing the accompaniments the aesthetic is sparse, suggesting an intimate domestic setting. The overall effect is aurally cleansing, and the recorded sound is outstanding.
Nuit de Noël
Sofi Jennin, Maîtrise de Radio France et al
There’s a delicious tang and freshness to the singing and the period-instrument accompaniments. A second disc has random ‘greatest hits’ of Baroque music, including Bach’s Magnificat, Handel’s Dixit Dominus, and Corelli’s Christmas Concerto.
Christmas at St George’s Windsor
The Choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle/James Vivian; Luke Bond (organ)
Where recordings are concerned, the Choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle has often been overshadowed by London’s cathedral choirs and the leading college choirs of Oxford and Cambridge. But two recent royal weddings have put St George’s firmly in the spotlight, and this new disc shows its all-male choir is a force to be reckoned with. Conductor James Vivian deserves major credit for his preparation of the singers, whose dedication and artistry make this a deeply satisfying recital.
Errollyn Wallen: Peace on Earth
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
King’s College KGS0050
Errollyn Wallen’s choral music – performed here with clarity, precision and care – is truly glorious. It’s a constant source of surprise and joy.
- Five of the best ancient Christmas carols
- Five of the best modern Christmas carols
- The 25 greatest Christmas carols of all time
Click through for our round-up of the best new Christmas classical recordings, released this year.