The best Christmas classical recordings of all time

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 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols 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'.

John Rutter: Music for Christmas

Polyphony / City of London Sinfonia / Stephen Layton Hyperion CDA 67245

Few modern composers evoke the magic and mystery of the Christmas season as well as John Rutter. And no wonder - the composer himself has noted that as a student, the carol service was the 'highlight of the year'. This collection of Rutter's seasonal compositions is beautifully recorded by Stephen Layton, who once again directs Polyphony and the City of London Sinfonia following a magnificent release of Rutter's Gloria and other sacred music (CDA67259).

Hyperion Rutter Music for Christmas CDA67245

A Deep but Dazzling Darkness

Apollo5 VCM Records

As winter bites, vocal ensemble Apollo 5 invites you to ‘coorie doon’ (Scots for 'nestle' or 'snuggle') with them and enjoy music of comfort and joy. Gathering together some of the best contemporary choral writing for the festive season, A Deep but Dazzling Darkness conjures up the barren beauty of leaf-stripped trees, the wonder of first snowfall, the magic of stars studding an ink-dark sky and many more captivating wintry images in sound.

Apollo5 A Deep but Dazzling Darkness

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.


A Star in the East

This nicely eclectic mix of festive favourites features lutenist Ronn McFarlane and Carolyn Surrick on viola da gamba. The repertoire is a well-chosen mix of reimagined traditional Christmas favourites, sitting beside brand new works composed by the duo. The resulting programme is a nice tapestry of music that ranges from 15th-century Europe to 21st-century America.


Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.