Are you caught in a continuous loop of blaring holiday music, in the car or at home, that does little to inspire or soothe the soul? Is your stereo disgorging nothing but the Chipmunks, “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” and “Santa Baby”? And that’s the good stuff?
We hear you. And we’ve got a short list of suggestions for antidotes—from the ancient to the modern. These recordings, we promise, will end up as your go-to selections for years, and they make perfect perennial stocking stuffers.
“Messiah,” George Frideric Handel, Robert Shaw (Telarc Digital) — There are enough recordings of this seasonal masterpiece to derail a freight train, and it’s hard to go wrong with most of them. However, this effort by the late Robert Shaw and his go-to ensembles, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, continues to be the benchmark for legions of discerning listeners. Shaw was arguably America’s greatest choral conductor and all his ensembles exhibited uncommon polish, sensitivity and cohesiveness, all of which come to the fore on this recording of the complete oratorio—no trims or shortcuts.
“A Dave Brubeck Christmas” (Telarc Jazz) — The innovative genius who stamped West Coast “cool” jazz into musical history with his landmark recording of “Take Five” goes solo on this delightful and introspective collection of favorites. Brubeck, a Catholic who often composed and performed modern sacred works, is restrained and graceful here, but don’t mistake the simplicity for casualness. This is finely nuanced stuff that begs repeat listening, and it’s unmistakably Brubeck.
“Christmas at St. Michael’s Abbey: Chants for the Three Masses of Christmas,” The Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael’s Abbey (Jade Records) — Remarkable vocal purity from the Home Team: the Norbertine priests who live, teach and sing at St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado and at St. John the Baptist Church in Costa Mesa. Chant is the Norbertines’ particular charism, and this CD is proof that they know their stuff to the letter. Apart from being inherently beautiful, these settings for Masses at midnight, dawn and daytime are almost guaranteed to put you into a finely contemplative frame of mind. The perfect holiday stress buster.
“December,” George Winston (Wyndham Hill) — If the boilerplate about this much-loved new age/jazz release is to be credited, “December” was almost singlehandedly responsible for the success of the Wyndham Hill label back when it was first released in 1990. Winston on solo piano employs a deft minimalism, combined with a resonant tone to evoke the sort of gauzy quiet one might experience on a midwinter’s evening in a snow-covered landscape. His takes on traditional carols such as “The Holly and the Ivy” and “Carol of the Bells” are memorable, and his own compositions are seamlessly complementary (“Peace” is achingly evocative.). This one almost demands that you curl up in a big chair with a cup of hot cider.
“Christmas Time is Here,” Pacific Chorale (Gothic) — Since 1972 the visionary and masterful John Alexander has conducted this large Orange County-based chorus, and has taken it from community choir status to that of a world-class vocal ensemble. Known for its tonal precision, pinpoint dynamic control, expressiveness and wide-ranging repertoire, the chorale has many years of highly successful Christmas concerts under its collective belt, and this offering is the best evidence that they are continuing to get it right. This CD features three selections arranged by Alexander, a fine mix of mostly sacred traditional works, and Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” a perennial favorite at the chorale’s Christmas concerts. If you’re not familiar with this home town ensemble, this disc is an excellent introduction.
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge — This estimable and long-celebrated chorus of male choral scholars and boys is known throughout the world for its traditional Christmas Eve performance of “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” in the magnificent King’s College Chapel. Broadcast to millions live worldwide, this remarkable service alternates seasonal musical selections and Scripture readings and carries with it a sense of ceremonial reverence and restrained theatricality that only the English seem able to pull off. The choir has recorded many CDs of excellent and varied Christmas music, but for the full effect try one or both CDs titled “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” (EMI Classics), both of which were recorded live and contain all the musical selections and readings. If you can’t get to Cambridge this year (and by all means put it on your bucket list), this is the next best thing—nothing short of glorious.