Discover five new Christmas recordings for 2015

Five new holiday discs for 2015MPR photo

December 18, 2015

Classical-music staffer Jodi Gustafson describes five new Christmas albums released in 2015.

Bach's Christmas Oratorio was originally written to be sung in the churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas, Leipzig, Germany, for Christmas and the services between Christmas and Epiphany. Bach meant to make a dramatic, festive impression; only congregational singing was allowed in Advent (the four Sundays leading up to Christmas), and the six cantatas run the gamut of human emotion. Bach's genius for counterpoint and his musical inventiveness make this one of his best-loved works. Indeed, Mozart said of it, "Here and there, connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; the non-connoisseurs cannot fail to be pleased, yet without knowing why." There's truly something for everyone, and you can't help feeling what Bach wanted you to feel — whether or not you know music theory well enough to admire the architecture.

This is Bach sung with beautiful clarity in the original German by the Bavarian Radio Choir, and played elegantly on period instruments by Berlin's Academy of Ancient Music. This Christmas Oratorio will not disappoint.

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort are doing something unusual here: they're re-creating the context of Bach's first Christmas at Leipzig and laying it out for us to enjoy. The CD is arranged in the order that music would have appeared in a Lutheran Vespers (evening prayer) service. A Gabrieli choral motet opens the CD, followed by a Bach organ prelude and then Cantata 63. At that point in the service, there would have been a spoken portion, which is omitted on the CD; following the Cantata, an Organ Prelude & Fugue precede the Magnificat itself, which is then followed by congregational singing and another organ work. The effect is reverent and seamless. The musicianship of the singers and the players is flawless, and it's interesting to hear the works in their historical context.

The Gift of Life, the first work on the disc, was written as a celebration of the life and work of a church musician friend of Rutter's. Having already written a Requiem, Rutter decided to write a celebratory exploration of "the miracles of life and creation" for chorus and orchestra. Seven other recent works round out the collection.

The CD alternates between Rutter's two signature compositional states: syncopated, brassy excitement and stringswept earnestness, both threaded with deeply considered liturgical/biblical references. His setting of Psalm 150, written for Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee Service in 2002, exemplifies this perfectly.

The disc isn't overtly a holiday disc, but its last three tracks are a lovely Advent carol (Christ Is the Morning Star) and two Christmas pieces: the wistful All Bells in Paradise, from the 2012 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, and the lively Rejoice and Sing, written for his mentor Sir David Willcocks's 95th birthday in 2014.

Lovers of contemporary choral music looking for familiar tunes in fresh settings will appreciate this disc; this is American choral music, with settings published mostly since 2004, with a few dating as far back as Dale Warland's 1968 arrangement of Coventry Carol. Piano and cello make several appearances each, but there is some a cappella music here as well. Standouts include Joey Hoelscher's lovely, meditative take on Still, Still Still and Carolyn Jennings's upper-midwest standard Go Tell It on the Mountain, which is sung with verve.

Pure, wafting boy choir and full English choral sound — this is a solid offering from the St Paul's Cathedral Choir, under the baton of Andrew Carwood.

If you like to sing along, this disc is a great pick. Eight of the arrangements will be familiar to most people, especially those who have sung in a choir. The others are by a great representation of modern English choral music: Britten, Rutter, Warlock, Stopford, etc. There are moments of quiet wonder and others of stately glory; terrific seasonal listening!