It’s Christmas Season again! – Musicophile’s Favorite Seasonal Music

Unfortunately, an infection has stopped me from progressing on some new reviews.

So in the meantime, allow me to remind you about the beautiful music I’ve written about that you can enjoy in this beautiful season.

I’m not religious at all, but Christmas time in Europe still is a special moment to all of us, and this music will always be intrinsically linked to the smells of gingerbread and the like.

The Nutcracker

Let’s start all the way East: with the Nutcracker, probably the most seasonal ballet by Tchaikovsky. My favorite version remains Abbado, but I’m currently listening to a recent version by Gergiev that I plan to review shortly.

Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker Simon Rattle Berliner Philharmoniker EMI Classics

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Let’s move on to the all time classic of the period: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

I have several favorite versions here, but have yet to check out the recent release of John Butt and the Dunedin Consort, which got good reviews.

Bach Christmas Oratorio John Eliot Gardiner Monteverdi Choir English Baroque Soloists DG Archiv 1987

Bach’s Christmas Cantatas

Bach also has written some lesser know cantatas for the Christmas period, that are very much worth checking out, particularly in this version.

Bach: In Tempore Nativitatis - Weihnachten Kantanten - Christmas Cantatas - Canates de Noël - Ricercar Consort Philippe Pierlot Mirare

Händel’s Messiah

Moving from Bach to Händel, the Messiah is the other BIG Christmas work that you really cannot be missing. I’ve been “lazy” and have recommended not only one, but three excellent versions in this previous post.

Handel: Messiah - Emannuelle Haïm Le Concert d'Astree Erato 24/96

Christmas Jazz

And finally, if you’re more into Jazz, there is my blog post on my five favorite Christmas Jazz albums.

Diana Krall Christmas Songs Verve

Wishing all of you a peaceful holiday period!

Merry Christmas With 3x the Messiah!

The Messiah

Given the season, I’ve been quite busy writing about Christmas and Seasonal music recently. You will find my musings about the Christmas Oratorio, Bach’s Christmas Cantatas, the Nutcracker, and even my favorite Christmas Jazz albums.

However, one major piece is certainly missing from the list above, and potentially the most famous of all, Georg Friedrich Händel’s Messiah. I guess even most non classical listeners will be able to recognize the famous “Hallelujah” from his best-know oratorio.

I’ve previously written about some other beautiful vocal music of Händel, as well as started writing about his operas (see my post about Rinaldo here) which I like very much. I’ve so far avoided writing about the Messiah, not because I don’t like it, but I just didn’t get to it yet.

To be fair, the Messiah is not properly speaking Christmas music, although the entire first part focuses on the prophecies of the birth of the Messiah, but it is often enough played in this season, so I include it here.

There are about a gazillion recording of this piece, not surprisingly, starting from early ones like the famous Otto Klemperer version, to luckily (to my ears) many contemporary versions influenced by the Historically Informed Practice (HIP).

All the versions I recommend below are HIP, if you prefer big-scale, traditional playing, the Klemperer recording is not a bad place to start.

My Three Favorite Versions

My three favorite versions date from last three decades. The earliest from the early 90s, the middle one from the mid-2000’s, and the latest one is barely a year old at the time of writing (2015).

William Christie, Les Arts Florissants (Harmonia Mundi 1994)

William Christie is one of the greatest baroque conductors ever (see also his beautiful recent album Music for Queen Caroline, reviewed here).

His 1994 recording of the Messiah was my first ever version which I bought shortly after it came out, and I turned out to be very lucky as this remains a great version to this day.

Some great singers (e.g. Mark Padmore, Sandrine Piau), and the ever beautiful playing of the great French ensemble Les Arts Florissants, make this, 20 years later, still a very nice recording.

Handel: Messiah - Les Arts Florissants - William Christie Harmonia Mundi

 

John Butt, Dunedin Consort (Linn Records 2007)

Pretty much every recording of the Dunedin Consort under John Butt is worth having. They have a clear fanclub at Gramophone, but while I sometimes disagree with the UK-artist hyping of this British magazine, for the Dunedin Consort I share their excitement.

This recording is probably the most polished of the three, with beautiful acoustics, sometimes a bit more moderate tempos, but a lot of insights and beauty. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Handel: Messiah - Dunedin Consort & Players John Butt Linn Records

Emmanuelle Haïm, Le Concert D’Astrée (Erato/Warner Classics 2014)

The second French recording in my list (William Christie, in spite of his American origins, has worked most of his life in France). I haven’t written about Emmanuelle Haïm yet on this blog, which is a big mistake. I’m a huge fan of hers, and what she does with her Concert d’Astrée is nearly always worth checking out (note that I’ve previously praised the Concert d’Astrée’s version of Mozart’s c-minor mass, but under a different conductor).

This is the most recent recording of the Messiah that I own (2014), and it quickly became my favorite. Why? Well, most of all it is the orchestral playing which has a beautiful “swing” to it. While this is obviously a festive work, baroque music is often based on or inspired by dance music, and this is probably the version of the three that gets closest to that ideal. Love it!

Handel: Messiah - Emannuelle Haïm Le Concert d'Astree Erato 24/96

My ratings: 4 stars (Christie & Butt), 5 stars (Haïm)

You can find the Christie here (Prestoclassical), the Dunedin here (Linn), and the Haïm here (Qobuz).

Merry Christmas!

I wish all of you a relaxing year end break, Merry Christmas if you celebrate it, and all the best! This is most likely my last post of the year, check back in in 2016! It’s been great fun sharing all this beautiful music with you, and getting all the feedback from you! Thanks for taking this journey with me!

 

In Tempore Nativitatis – Bach’s Christmas Cantatas by Philippe Pierlot

Christmas Music

Finding tasteful Christmas music is not always an easy task.

Obviously, not everything is as bad as this:

or this:

But nevertheless, there is still a lot of tasteless stuff around. I’ve tried to point to some of my sources for tasteful Christmas music, the timeless Christmas Oratorio, the Nutcracker, and my favorite Christmas Jazz albums previously, but luckily good old Johann Sebastian has also written more than the Christmas Oratorio.

Bach’s Christmas Cantatas

The Christmas Oratorio itself is basically a collection of cantatas, and as part of his large collection of cantatas (that I yet need to write about in more detail), he’s also written several cantatas for specific seasons.

Typically, there are three cantatas closely associated with Christmas.

BWV 63, Christen, ätzet diesen Ta(Christians, engrave this day), was written in 1713 for the first day of Christmas, referring to the announcement of Christ. In character, it is very festive, but not necessarily very “christmassy”.

BWV 110, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (May our mouth be full of laughter), is my favorite of the three. This is partially due to the fact that its opening is based on Bach’s Orchestral Suite BWV 1069, which I really love. And here, the addition of the choir really gives it a fully new structure and beauty. Again, this cantata was written for the first day of Christmas, in 1725, while Bach was working in Leipzig.

BWV 151, Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt (Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes), was also written in 1725, for St. John’s day, the third day of Christmas, is the most intimate of the three cantatas, but doesn’t lack any beauty nevertheless. Just check out the beautiful flute solo in the first movement.

There is obviously no shortage of recordings of Bach cantatas, there is a sizable number of complete recordings out there. My personal favorites usually are Koopman and Gardiner, but Suzuki’s and Rilling also are very nice alternatives.

In Tempore Nativitatis – Christmas Cantatas – Philippe Pierrot – Ricercar Consort (Mirare 2013)

Bach: In Tempore Nativitatis - Weihnachten Kantanten - Christmas Cantatas - Canates de Noël - Ricercar Consort Philippe Pierlot Mirare

The Ricercar Consort is a Belgian ensemble lead by Philippe Pierlot. The musicians play with a lot of love for the music, and generate a very transparent and spacious sound.

The voices are also very beautiful. My favorite is Maria Keohane in Süsser Trost, but also really like Julien Prégardien, son of Christoph, here as well

If you want to go for a complete collection of cantatas, you may well go directly to Koopman and Gardiner, but if you are looking for a modern, beautifully recorded version of the Christmas cantatas specifically, you really cannot go wrong with this album.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) or here (Prestoclassical)

The Nutcracker – Or Why I Sometimes Do Like Tchaikovsky

The Nutcracker

In my previous post on Tchaikovsky’s symphony no. 5 I’ve stated that I don’t like Tchaikovsky very much. However, I must admit he really did some magical (and not in the Disney sense of the word) melodies in his ballets.

Western Christmas traditions now include regular performances of the Nutcracker. The story was originally a German fairy tale of a prince turned into a nutcracker, by E.T.A Hoffmann, later adapted by Alexandre Dumas. Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere in 1892, and both the ballet and the “best-of” excerpt, the suites, are these days among the most famous of his works.

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker – Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker  (EMI Classics 2010)

Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker Simon Rattle Berliner Philharmoniker EMI Classics

My first version was the legendary one by André Previn with the London Symphony Orchestra (also on EMI). That version is still very nice, so I didn’t look for a new recording for years (I basically listen to this work literally once or twice per year, usually some time in December).

However, two  years ago I heard about this relatively new (2010) recording by Rattle on the radio, and I checked it out and I really liked it. Beautiful orchestral colors by the great BPO, and most importantly all the energy that this music really needs (I’m anything but a dancer, but this music makes me want to get up from my sofa and move to it).

You’ll find some excerpts of the recording here, with a nice interview with Sir Simon Rattle and some BPO musicians:

 

Note that some people say that Russian music can only be played well by Russian conductors, and indeed Gergiev did a great job on his Decca recording with the Kirov orchestra from the 1990s.

But still, Rattle did such a fine version that I doubt I’ll ever buy another Nutcracker again (well, never say never).

My rating: 5 stars

You can buy the CD here, I haven’t found a decent lossless download source.

My Top 5 Christmas Jazz Albums

After my previous post on the Christmas Oratorio, I thought let’s continue the seasonal music a bit more, but expand to Jazz.

Warning: Cheesy Music Ahead!

Yes, obviously, non-classical Christmas music usually is rather cheesy. If you take it to the extremes, it can feel like a bit too much.

But let’s face it, isn’t this the time for “a bit too much”?

The trick is to find the albums that are still giving you the Christmas feel without completely overdoing it. I’ve looked around quite a bit and found 5 albums that are certainly a bit kitsch, but you (or at least I) can listen to an entire album without the feeling of just too much sugar.

 

Holly Cole: Baby, It’s Cold Outside (Alert Records 2001)

Holly Cole Baby It's Cold Outside

I’m actually surprised I haven’t mentioned Holly on my blog yet, as I like her music very much. She’s located somewhere between Jazz and Pop/Singer Songwriter, and I really like her voice.

My favorite song on this album is the track that is probably given you the least holiday spirit, a cover of Merle Haggard’s If We Make It Through December. You can see from this song already that this is not your typical Christmas album.

Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas (Verve 1960)

0004400650862_600

OK, not a lot of kitsch here, but one of the fastest versions of Jingle Bells ever (OK, not as fast as Barbara Streisand here, but still pretty fast). The track selection is a little bit more classical than Holly Cole, so you get all your Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer, Let It Snow,  and Winter Wonderlands, but with the usual charm and swing of Ella’s beautiful voice.

Diana Krall: Christmas Songs (Verve 2005)

Diana Krall Christmas Songs Verve

This is actually already the second Christmas album by Mrs Krall, the first one is a 1999 EP called Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.

Diana Krall’s voice is just perfect for Christmas songs, and the not too overloaded Clayton/Hamilton Orchestra is doing a great job here (although poor drummer Jeff Hamilton probably get’s a bit bored here). OK, you get your occasional dose if strings, but they don’t dominate the album too much.

My favorite song on this album is Winter Wonderland, which has a beautiful swing to it.

 

Emilie-Claire Barlow: Winter Wonderland (Victor 2006)

Emilie-Claire Barlow doesn’t have the same near celebrity status as her fellow Canadian Diana Krall, but she’s also a very fine singer. She has a very particular tone, much brighter than all the other singers listed above, if you’ve heard her once, you’ll recognize her immediately.

 

One particularity of this album is that she turns Sleigh Ride into a Samba.

Emilie-Claire Barlow Winter Wonderland

 

Vince Guaraldi: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy 1965)

And given that I’m a fan of the Jazz Piano Trio, a non-vocal classic had to be on this list. You’ve never heard O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree) swinging better!

Vince Guaraldi A Charlie Brown Christmas

 

You can find the albums above here:

Holly Cole (ProStudimasters)

Ella Fitzgerald (Qobuz)

Diana Krall (Qobuz)

Emily-Claire Barlow (HDtracks)

Vince Guaraldi (Acoustic Sounds)

My Favorite Versions of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Christmas Music

Only three weeks left until Christmas. Usually, during this time there are three unavoidable things: Some singer releasing a Christmas album (that reminds me that I need to write a post about my favorite Jazz Christmas albums, watch this space), you hear Wham again on the radio 5 times per day, and most households that have some form of love for classical music play the Christmas oratorio, in a similar frequency to the Last Christmas repetitions on popular radio.

I’m very similar, during the month of December the Oratorio gets played at least 10-20 times. I wonder myself why I still like it. But let’s face it, this is Bach, and you can never get too much Bach.

Listening to this work you’re best of when you speak at least some German, as you get the entire beautiful Christmas story told to you by the Evangelist, but if you don’t, either get the booklet or just enjoy the music

(Side note: I’m not religious, but having grown up in a Western country Christmas has become more of a family tradition than a religious event for me like for many others).

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir (DG Archiv 1987)

Bach Christmas Oratorio John Eliot Gardiner Monteverdi Choir English Baroque Soloists DG Archiv 1987

Gardiner’s version from 1987 is probably the best known, and it is still my favorite version. I’m not sure if my preference isn’t biased by the fact that I’ve heard it so much over and over again, but Gardiner plays with so much drive and energy, that although I must have heard this hundreds of times, it still doesn’t get boring.

There are obviously many alternatives.

Philippe Herreweghe (Erato 1992)

One of my favorite alternatives around is also a bit older. Philippe Herreweghe’s version is a bit more mellow than Gardiner, but still has all the beauty in both playing and singing.

Bach Christmas Oratorio Philippe Herrweghe Collegium Vocale Ghent Erato

I have listened to a number of more recent versions, but still go back to these two above most of the time. Among the more recent alternatives I’ve tried are Mazaaki Suzuki (polished, but a bit too behaved), Diego Fasolis (really fast, not my cup of tea), and Gramophone’s favorite version, Harnoncourt 2nd version on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (good but I like both versions above better).

My rating: 4 stars for both (I’m still waiting for the perfect version, but both come pretty close)

You can download the Gardiner here (Qobuz) and the Herreweghe here (Qobuz again)