Music has a peculiar God-invested power to move us emotionally and spiritually. It aids us in lauding our God; in rejoicing in our salvation and all God’s other gifts; in celebrating our own milestones and achievements; in musing about life and truth; in grieving and lamenting loved ones and loss – and all of that the more so when combined with texts that proclaim biblical truth. No doubt that’s why the music of Christmas so draws us in. And the centuries-old history of the music of our faith contains an embarrassment of riches in illuminating, commenting on and rejoicing in the birth of Christ.
My husband Ed and I have dozens of Christmas recordings, on vinyl, CDs and thumb drives. I also often stream Advent and Christmas music as I’m using my computer. We listen to our music again and again, but every few years we feel it’s time for one new recording. What to choose? And what to recommend?
“Classical Christmas” is always where we begin. But “classical” covers broad ground (and a multitude of sins!) There’s the stark but ethereal early music and the clean precision and clear voices of the Baroque – which we both love. There’s the depth and warmth of operatic carol renditions with majestic orchestras; the meditative qualities of solo guitars, or harps or pianos; praise band versions of classic Christian carols; and even the “classical Christmas” strains of pop singers like Perry Como (going back to 1959). There’s even “classic” Elvis at Christmas. Thus, thinking about a Christmas recording I might recommend, that might be appreciated by the widest possible number of CC readers, seemed an hopeless task. Tastes differ. Widely!
Then I found “The Ultimate Classical Christmas Album of All Time.” Now that over-the-top title made me instantly skeptical. But it was also calculated to get me (and thousands of others) to delve in, to see whether what it offered came within a country mile of what it promised. Surprise! While I myself still wouldn’t use such a title, it’s a pretty satisfying two-CD set. And a bargain too ($12.47 at Amazon). So: what comprises such an all-purpose “ultimate” recording?
First, it’s truly Christmas music; no snow men, white Christmases or Santa Claus here. Said one Amazon reviewer, “I was looking for some more traditional Christmas music that involved Christ, and not this new era of ‘supposedly’ Christmas music that has nothing at all to do with the real meaning of Christmas. I was not disappointed.” Wonderful. But there have been 2,000 years of music celebrating Christ’s birth. Where to start?
What makes this the “ultimate” album is its richness of styles, genres, musical periods, instrumentation and performers. As expected, the most beloved carols are represented (e.g., “Joy to the World,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Once in Royal David’s City,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Lo, How a Rose,” “Silent Night,” “O Holy Night.” Then, a number of equally beautiful, less well-known carols. All are performed expertly, and with variety by solo singers or instrumentalists, choirs, orchestras.
There are movements from works by Bach (“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”), Mozart (“Exultate Jubilate”), and some early music. There are a few winter-related orchestral works (e.g., a movement from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker; the “Sleigh Ride” from a Mozart German Dance). But they have no jarring secular texts, their music is sublime and they seem right at home here.
Many of the singers are 20th century legends: Eileen Farrell, Frederica von Stade, Lucia Popp, Marilyn Horn; renowned Baroque soprano Emma Kirkby; flutist Jean Pierre Rampal, organist E. Power Biggs. And great orchestras (Philadelphia/Ormandy; Bach Collegium Stuttgart). If you’re not keen on opera, don’t let those opera singers deter you. These women were the world’s best in their hey-day, and there’s nothing of the heavy vibrato, glass-shattering, fat-lady-sings character about any of them.
A drawback of an album like this can be its very variety: 23 tracks in different styles, with different performers, one after the other. If you have a long attention span and love multiple-movement classical works, the little-of-this, little-of-that nature of this album may be disconcerting. Digital-age listeners should have no such problem. But don’t take my word for it: you can sample every track free at amazon.com. (If you don’t patronize Amazon, the album is available elsewhere.)
Wishing you all a glorious celebration of our Saviour’s birth – with music!
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