I had a whole essay planned about this, but I don’t think I’m going to get around to it in time to do anyone any good this year, so for now let me simply post my list of somewhat obscure Christmas music that I’ve been casually researching over the years. Thanks to my pal Andrew Sempere for encouraging me to share this! Beginning in the late 90’s, I had the idea to pick up a new album of new (to me) Christmas music every year, and here’s where it’s led me.
Olivier Messiaen, Vingt Regards sur l’‘enfant-Jésus. If I could pick only one Christmas CD for the rest of my days, it would be Pierre Laurent Aimard’s masterful recording of this masterpiece (cheating really; it’s a double CD set), running the gamut from serene to ecstatic. I don’t listen to much solo piano music, but this piece and this performance are so kaleidoscopic, it might as well be an orchestra or a synthesizer.
John Adams, El Niño. Combining traditional Christmas texts with Latin American poetry and stories from apocryphal gospels (e.g., St. Thomas), filling in the story with details like Joseph’s reaction when he came home and found his fiancée great with child. Fantastic recording with Dawn Upshaw and the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
Tallis Scholars, Christmas Carols and Motets. In Dulce Jubilo, Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming, and other, lesser known early Christmas music.
Michael Praetorius and friends, Mass for Christmas Morning. A Lutheran mass as it might have sounded around 1620, with music mostly by Praetorius, but a bit of music by Martin Luther himself. A fascinating speculation, although the dynamic range of this recording is extreme, and the loud bits are a bit distorted.
Hector Berlioz, L’Enfance du Christ. Turning the traditional story into the stuff of opera, in true Romantic fashion, full of political intrigue in the court of Herod and a beguiling trio for two flutes and harp.
George Crumb, A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979. In the vein of Macrocosmos, and “Lully Lullay, Thou Little Tiny Child” gets a treatment similar to “Death and the Maiden” in Black Angels.
Olivier Messiaen, La Nativite du Seigneur. A relatively early work by Messiaen, a suite for organ. One of these pieces was how I met my good friend Erik Floan; take it from me, evangelical pastors: Messiaen gets butts in pews!
Dale Warland Singers, December Stillness. One of the finest choral CD’s I’ve ever heard, impeccably sung and pristinely recorded. Too much gorgeousness to sum up, with Stravinsky, Penderecki, Paulus, Poulenc, Rachmaninov, though the best pieces are probably by folks you’ve never heard of.
Handel’s Messiah. One year I figured I had to break down and buy it, overplayed as it is (I even sang it a few years in Shanghai with the International Festival Chorus, billed as “Concert of Classical Favorites by Handel” to avoid alerting the censors, who nonetheless called off the show one year). I like Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s recording, although it’s also a bit fuzzy on the loud parts.
J. S. Bach, Advent Cantatas BWV 36, 61, 62. This CD is also pure gorgeousness. BWV 61 and 62 are both based on the chorale tune Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland, and BWV 61 holds a special place in my heart, as I sang the bass recitative “Siehe, ich stehe vor der Tür” when we did this cantata at Holy Trinity on Mercer Island (under the direction of the aforementioned Erik Floan).
J. S. Bach, Christmas Oratorio. Masterpiece! Again I go with Sir John, also featuring Anne Sophie von Otter!
Ralph Vaughan Williams, Hodie. I actually never bought this one, but I checked it out from the library; a late work, been thinking I need to give it another go.
Benjamin Britten, Ceremony of Carols. This was last year’s choice, and it wasn’t really new to me, as I’ve sung some of it, and I’ve heard “This Little Babe” sung several times quite masterfully by St. Olaf’s Manitou Singers (including on this year’s Christmas at St. Olaf live simulcast). I got the recording with King’s College Choir and Stephen Cleobury, and I can’t say I’m overly taken with it; I’m tempted to conclude that it’s simply too tricky for children to sing (especially those quick licks in “Wulcom Yole!”).
Oh, and I would be remiss to exclude the various St. Olaf Christmas Festival CD’s to which I have returned over the years.
Spotify makes this whole endeavor less of an adventure, and I’m actually in the middle of an existential crisis about what it means to own a recording. But anyway, here are a couple of new discoveries that I’m in the process of exploring this year:
John Harbison, The Flight into Egypt. Did you know that a Christmas cantata won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for music?
John Harbison, Christmas Vespers
Hugo Distler, Kleine Adventsmusik
Krzysztof Penderecki, Symphony No 2 “Christmas,” based on Silent Night (!)
(I’ve been on a bit of a Harbison kick lately, hearing him lecture at MIT a few weeks ago, then bumping into him on the subway a few days later; looking forward to his sixth symphony premiere by the BSO in January!)
Speaking of Spotify, I’m working on a Christmas playlist, if anyone cares to listen in.
And a couple of pop tunes to round things out.
Aimee Mann, One More Drifter in the Snow. Not just a good Christmas album, but a good Aimee Mann album, including a new song by Mann and one by hubby Michael Penn.
Amy Grant, A Christmas Album. This has been a Houge family Christmas tradition for about as long as I can remembering paying attention, so it seems uncharitable to omit it here.
Elvis Presley, Blue Christmas. I get a mild, perverse pleasure out of this. It contains the theologically inscrutable lines, “Santa knows that we’re God’s children/That makes everything right/So say your prayers to the Lord above/Because Santa Claus comes tonight.”
Steve Taylor, “Winter Wonderland.” Mariachi style!
Prince, “Another Lonely Christmas.” The B-side to “I Would Die 4 U,” this is a pretty stupid song about a guy whose girl died on Christmas, but a pretty ridiculously intense performance.
Erasure, “She Won’t Be Home.” Don’t judge me.
They Might Be Giants, “Santa’s Beard.” “I saw my baby wearing Santa’s beard/I wish he would go, he’s breaking up my home.”
God bless us, everyone!