Our holiday music picksby Rex Levang, Minnesota Public Radio
We asked staff members of Classical Minnesota Public Radio to select outstanding holiday discs -- and their choices ranged from "Nutcracker" to Christopher Rouse.
St. Paul, Minn. — Every few years, we ask the music mavens of Classical Minnesota Public Radio to give us their recommendations for outstanding holiday discs.
The results, as with so many holiday traditions, are a blend of the old and the new. They encompass recordings from homegrown to international, from baroque to pop -- but certain themes emerge, as you'll see.
Holiday Evergreens: Some pieces, and some musicians, seem to have an automatic association with Christmas, so it wasn't surprising to get recommendations including names like Chanticleer, Rutter, and Handel.
All of the Christmas discs by Chanticleer, the outstanding men's chorus, had their advocates. Richard Rasch is a fan of "Our Heart's Joy." This is the disc, and the performance, that put Biebl's Ave Maria on the map.
Another stalwart of Christmas music is John Rutter, the British choral conductor and composer. He began his career with the Clare College Choir. Their disc, "The Holly and the Ivy" got Ward Jacobson's vote.
Rutter then went on to found the Cambridge Singers, and Brian Steele says that their collection "Christmas Night" is a near-and-dear disc in his house, "especially the haunting I Sing of a Maiden by Patrick Hadley."
"A Festival of Carols" with the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble presents standard carols, arranged and performed with panache. When brass players, such as John Zech, are asked to name a favorite disc, this is often the one they'll pick -- so you know it must be good.
Bob Christiansen likes "Joy to the World," by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
"The richness of the arrangements takes me back to what I remember Christmas sounded like to me when I was young." Among dozens of Messiah recordings, the one by Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque got a nod from both Ward and Melissa Ousley. And Rex Levang endorses the Nutcracker led by Antal Dorati, for its buoyant danceable elan.
Steve Staruch named one piece -- the Christmas Oratorio by J.S. Bach, which is actually a collection of six cantatas describing the Nativity story. (Sad to say, his favorite performance, by Ton Koopman, may be hard to find -- maybe a Christmas wish for next year?)
Going International: Valerie Kahler likes "Carols from Around the World," by the vocal ensemble Quink, and picks their performance of Coventry Carol as a highlight on the disc. But this disc also includes Polish, Czech, Spanish, and German carols, as well as one from Quink's own country, the Netherlands.
"Karolju," by American composer Christopher Rouse, is a brand new piece, just recorded for the first time, but Fred Child has no hesitation in adding it to a list of Christmas favorites.
In it, Rouse uses texts in eight different languages, and though it's a completely original work, it's artfully crafted to evoke the melodies and moods of traditional carols. The international flavor of this disc is enhanced by the inclusion of pieces from Poland and Spain.
The sound of British folk music is the starting point for Maddy Prior's "Tapestry of Carols," recommended by Melissa Ousley. But alongside British carols, you'll also hear tunes from Germany, Spain, and other countries on this disc.
Home for the Holidays: Our staff came back to Minnesota-themed recordings again and again. Gillian Martin is a fan of the Twin Cities' Rose Ensemble and "Celebremos el Nino." This disc mines a little-known area, the baroque music of Mexico, to fascinating effect.
Gayle Ober and Brian Newhouse both agree that the music of Christmas and the Dale Warland Singers are a magical combination. Brian says of their disc "Lux Aurumque," it's "sung with a deep spirituality. Mixed choral work does not get any better than this." And Gayle describes their earlier disc "December Stillness" as "a breath of fresh air, and a reminder of the true spirit of Christmas."
And finally: Yes, Virginia, classical hosts do listen to pop music. Jeff Esworthy puts in a plug for Vince Guaraldi's "Charlie Brown Christmas."
This disc can trace its beginnings back to Charles Schulz's Minnesota boyhood, but it's now part of the Christmas songbook for millions around the world who can't hear "Linus and Lucy" without picturing grade-school pageants, decorated doghouses and a Christmas tree that can't stand up straight.