10 Christmas Albums You May Not Know

Deal W. Hudson
December 4, 2017

I chuckle at my use of “albums” given the remarkable comeback of vinyl recordings, though downloading is actually the medium gradually replacing the CD.  Thus, I would advise the reader to check both CD and download formats for the recordings listed below (links to both, where available, are provided). I’ve been something of a Christmas music nerd since my teenage years, due possibly to my sentimental nature but more likely because of a body of music that has stood the “test of time” and, even more, the challenge of repeated hearings.

These tunes are mercilessly pumped through elevators, malls, and, now, gas pumps, making me wonder how they have avoided complete secularization.  But, no, their power remains, and each season our hearts are lifted by hearing them again.

With this in mind, I offer the following recordings as an example not only of the best in traditional presentations but also those whose innovations are firmly guided by the spirit of the Great Mystery they represent. (See note at bottom on buying CDs and downloads.)

A Merry Christmas played by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

Available for download on iTunes. (Amazon, too, but charges more.) The CD seems to be out of print.

These orchestral arrangements of 19 well-known carols and songs, which I am listening to while I write this column. The arrangements are lovely, each is a winner as far as I am concerned, and the Shanghai string sections possess a warm, rounded, shimmering sound that pleases the ear greatly. You think you won’t like this, but I guarantee, you will.

A Cabaret Christmas

CD available here and download at iTunes.

Fifteen Christmas songs and carols arranged for the best cabaret and jazz singers around at the time, 1993: Ann Hampton Calloway, Barbara Cook, Billy Stritch, and Andrea Marcovicci. Vocals include “Silent Night” by Barbara Cook, “Winter Wonderland” by Ann Hampton Callaway, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Barbara Loudon.” Delightful!

String Quartet Christmas Vol. 1-3 played by Arturo Delmoni & Friends

CD available here and download at iTunes for only $17.99.

Sixty-eight, yes, that’s 68 carols and songs arranged and played by the string quartet. Don’t nod off! These recordings really have magic and help you listen to the music with fresh ears. I find myself coming back to them every year, and I’m impressed all over again. Great for Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.

Christmas Music from Sweden played and sung by the Orpheus Singers, conducted by Peter Sund and soloist Christina Högman.

CD available here and download at iTunes.

One of the musical highlights of all Christmas recordings is to hear Högman sing “Quelle Est Cette Odeur Agreable” (When Is That Goodly Fragrance Flowing”). This entire recording is one to treasure and makes many English language ensembles sound like amateurs. Add the superb BIS engineering and we have a classic. What they call a “desert island disc”!

Adeste Fideles: Christmas Music from Westminster Cathedral sung by the Westminster Choir conducted by James O’Donnell.

If the English Cathedral style appeals to your ear, then this recording from Hyperion is the best I know. The Westminster Cathedral Choir was at its peak under James O’Donnell, and this recording has not been bested by any choir since, though David Willcocks and the King’s College Choir were the best of his generation.)  I particularly treasure O’Donnell’s recording of “Once In Royal David’s City” and, yes, the title song, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

CD available here and download at iTunes.

Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity sung by The Cambridge Singers, conducted by John Rutter.

CD available here and download at iTunes.

There are many John Rutter Christmas albums, but he never improved on this early one for his own Collegium label. There is a sparkle and joy in these renderings that are not always matched in later recordings. A youthful Gerald Finley sings “I Wonder As I Wander” with complete authority, while the renderings of “A virgin most pure”(14th century) and “I sing of maiden” (15th century) belie the centuries of their origin.

John Rutter: Music for Christmas sung by Polyphony, conducted by Stephen Layton.

CD available here and download at iTunes.

This is one of the most consistently beautiful Christmas recordings I know. Rutter’s compositions of new carols and new arrangements of traditional ones will be an enduring gift to our celebration of Advent and Christmas. “What Sweeter Music” will be sung for centuries to come, as will “Mary’s Lullaby” and the “Nativity Carol.” You may have heard some of this music but not known its composer, John Rutter. If you don’t know, you will be glad to become acquainted.

Angels’ Glory sung by Kathleen Battle, accompanied on guitar by Christopher Parkening.

CD available here and downloads at iTunes.

Kathleen Battle has a rather embattled career, highlighted by her expulsion from the Metropolitan Opera for 20 years, a ban lifted only recently, but her vocal gift cannot be questioned.  Battle and Parkening combined here to create one of the most satisfying solo Christmas albums in the repertory. Parkening, himself, has been very public about his Christian faith which has provided the match lighting up these 19 selections. Battle’s high pianissimo passages are quite amazing to hear. Listen to “Gesù bambino” and try to resist.

Christmas In Harvard Square sung by The Boys of St. Paul’s Choir School, conducted by John Robinson.

CD available here, downloads at iTunes, and on DVD here.

The Boys of the St. Paul’s Choir School is one of the best-kept secrets in Catholic America.  It’s the only Catholic choir school in the nation, a school where adolescent and teenage boys are trained daily to sing the choral repertoire of the Church and, then, perform it at Masses and other liturgical celebrations. They were discovered, so to speak, by De Monfort Music record label whose co-founder, Monica Fitzgibbons, I interviewed on “Church and Culture.” John Robinson, conductor, and organist is destined to become, in my opinion, the American John Rutter, based upon his arrangements and original compositions such as the lovely “The Infant King.”

Messiah by G.F. Handel performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, with soloists Jon Vickers, Gorgio Tozzi, Monica Sinclair, and Jennifer Vyvyan.

CD available here for $9.99, download at iTunes for $4.99.

If you sample Jon Vickers singing “Comfort Ye, My People” or “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted” you will immediately hear one reason why this 1959 recording is so special, Vickers had an extraordinary voice which really could not be compared to anyone else for its sheer power and beauty, every note sounds effortless.  One could call this performance old-fashioned, but such labels are decimated by the joyous beauty that emanates from Beecham’s direction of his own orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, and four soloists who were among the best of their generation. Finally, it’s doubtful that any recording of the “Hallelujah Chorus” will match Beecham’s for its befitting regal grandeur — “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”!

*Note on buying CDs and downloads: I suggested using iTunes for downloading because they are reasonably priced and widely available. However, higher quality downloads of most of this music can be found at www.eclassical.comwww.theclassicalshop.com, www.prestoclassical.uk.co, and www.classicsonline.com. Many often buy CDs from Amazon, but you might also consider supporting vendors such as www.arkivmusic.com.

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