Traditional Christmas Music Made Easy
Choral Music is "the road less traveled"
Each holiday season I take the time to write about my favorite Holiday recording. Chanticleer’s We Sing Christmas (Warner Classics, 1995) has been my go-to Christmas listening since its release and my opportunity to attend their Christmas show live two years later, that performance described here:
A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Chanticleer present their annual Christmas program at their spiritual home in San Francisco at St. Ignatius Catholic Church. I had just purchased their most recent Christmas offering, We Sing Christmas and proceeded to wear my CD laser out playing it. My Early Music appetite had previously been properly whetted by the group and I purchased their entire extant catalog. Chanticleer's Christmas concert was the finest performance of any kind I had ever attended. The group made their a cappella way through six centuries of music, from English and French Plainsongs to American spirituals and modern choral music. The sonics in the standing-room-only St. Ignatius were perfect: crystalline, yet warm, enveloping. On my tortuous spiritual journey, the music performed revealed the hope and beauty of Christmas and clearly defined that music is the only truly divinely inspired word.
This is what music should summon when heard. We Sing Christmas is the most fully realized and executed of Chanticleer's many Christmas discs. It opens with a breathtaking "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen," Michael Praetorius's treatment of the German Poem "Gebetbüchlein des Frater Conradus," published in that composer's collection Alte catholische geistliche Kirckengesänge. Also included are beautiful renderings of "O magnum mysterium" and four arrangements of "In dulci jubilo." Holst's "In The Bleak Midwinter" and Ives' "A Christmas Carol" are perfectly captured, as is the often performed "Stille Nacht."
That being said, We Sing Christmas is no longer my single recommendation for this seasonal music. I must add the Gesualdo Six’s Christmas (Hyperion, 2019) to my recommendation. My recent review of the Gesualdo Six’s Morning Star (Hyperion, 2023) a collection addressing The Epiphany rather than Christmas, led me back to Christmas, where I re-realized its many splendors. There is much overlap of repertoire between the two recordings that makes for informative comparative listening. The major difference to detect is the difference in size between the twelve voices of Chanticleer and the six of the Gesualdo Six.
This size difference makes for a more intimate listening experience with the Six. "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" is distilled to its very essence, captured with enough space in which to walk around, was that allowed. The Six opt for only Bach’s setting of Michael Pratoreous’ "In dulci jubilo." “A Coventry Carol” is a flame by which to be warmed on a chilly midwinter night. Kirkpatrick’s “Away In The Manger” is reharmonized to great effect, revealing a refreshing modern character. A sepia-toned arrangement of “Jingle Bells” adds just a tincture of the secular to the recording.
If what passes for holiday music on one’s favorite streaming service leaves one wanting something with some gravity and significance, look no further than these two recordings.