Classical Christmas

Classical Christmas

When the month of December begins, I start listening to all the Christmas classics.

The classical composers have always written large amounts of music for Christmas. The time of the year when there is warmth, light and joy in homes all over the world and where many are still keen remember the birth of a small child from Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. For believers and non-believers alike Christmas is a time for reflection, and this sentiment has always been put into the music of the classical composers.

With this playlist I’d like to take you on a musical journey through some of the music that I think best suits this beautiful season. Not only do you get some of the most famous pieces, but also a few that you may have never come across before. As is wonderful about the classical genre in general, this music goes far and wide – both musically and geographically.

And if you’d like to learn a little bit more about what you’re listening to, I’ve provided a track-by-track commentary to reference as you journey through the list. Have a very good trip!

TIDAL Classical Christmas:

1. We lift off with the incredibly beautiful and lyrical overture to Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera “Hansel and Gretel.” The opera is built on the Grimm Brothers’ most famous fairy tale from 1812, and the opera played in many of the world’s opera-houses just this December.

2. We continue with Adolphe Adam’s “Cantique de Noël – Minuit Cretien,” a song that many, many singers have taken on over the years. Here it is in the Swedish version, performed by one of the most beautifully singing tenors ever – Jussi Björling.

3-12. And here comes one of the heavyweights of the classical Christmas music repertoire: G. F. Handel’s “The Messiah.” There is probably no self-respecting church or concert-hall in the world that hasn’t performed this work. It was composed in 1741 and is divided into three parts. Funnily enough, only the first two parts are about Christmas – the third part is about Easter. Nevertheless all three parts are usually performed around Christmas. Here’s a small excerpt of this glorious and evocative work, with one of Handel’s most famous choral pieces, “The Hallelujah Chorus.”

13. Here you maybe have an eye-opening experience with Jan Jacob Rybas’ “Rozmilý Slavícku,” performed by the Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená. Beautiful music, and eminently sung!

14. “O Magnum Mysterium” is a catholic morning prayer from a Christmas Mass, which has been put into music by numerous composers. This is Palestrina’s amazing version, sung by the English vocal-ensemble, The Sixteen, and conducted by Harry Christophers.

15. “Ave Maria” is also a Catholic prayer and perhaps one of the most famous ones. In this version, Bach has written the accompaniment: it is the first prelude from “Wohtemperiertes Klavier – Book 1″ and Gounod has written the song. It is sung in Italian, with the proper glow and sound by none other than Luciano Pavarotti.

16. We continue our little tenor-travel with Plácido Domingo’s version of Cesar Franck’s “Panis Angelicus,” which translates to Heavenly Bread. And they way it is sung – heavenly indeed!

17. The tenor-de-force with “El Nacimiento” – The Birth, from Ramirez’ modern classic, “Navidad Nuestra” – our Christmas. The album is one of the best-selling ever and has in the main role the Spanish tenor José Carreras.

18. No Christmas is complete without some rendition of “Silent Night.” There’s an almost endless list of versions to choose from, but I have always been so fond of this interpretation by Norwegian singer Sissel Kyrkjebøs.

19-26. Another Christmas poster child the world over (as well as being staged other times of the year) is Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. The little girl Clara is dreaming through a great adventure (or is it a dream ?) in Alexandre Dumas’ rewriting of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s brilliant Christmas fairy tale. The music from The Nutcracker is nothing short of brilliant and can be enjoyed by children and adults of all ages! Here the Berliner Philharmoniker plays under conductor Herbert von Karajan.

27. We return to England with a work by organ player Harold Edwin Darke. He composed this beautiful song called “In The Bleak Midwinter,” with lyrics by Christina Georgina Rossetti. Here it is sung by the soprano Rosemary Joshua and the tenor Ian Bostridge.

28. From the shores of Britain we travel to Romania, and more specifically to Evghenie Humulescu. He lived from 1870 to 1931, and on this track his compatriot, soprano Angela Gheorghiu, sings “Iubi-te-voi Doamne” - I Love You.

29. Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem is really not a Christmas piece at all, but “Pie Jesu” is simply a piece of music that I love very much.  And when it is sung, as here by the Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, it found its road to this list as well. At Christmas everything is allowed – as in classical music!

30. Then we stop by Denmark and listen to P. E. Lange-Müller’s “Old Christmas Carol.” He was very inspired by, among others, Robert Schumann and the incredibly romantic and beautiful music of Lange-Müller. It is sung here by the Danish vocal-ensemble Musica Ficta and directed by Bo Holten.

31. J. S. Bach has written almost eternal lists of great music and his Christmas Oratorio is among some of the finest around! Here, the opening chorus is performed by The English Baroque Soloists, The Monteverdi Choir and their chief conductor. John Eliot Gardiner. Gardiner was among the first contemporary conductors to play baroque music with original instruments and practices.

32. We land in France with Hector Berlioz’ version of a Christmas Oratorio “L’Enfance du Christ” - The Birth of Christ. And an excellent one, it is! The piece is in three parts and was first performed in Leipzig in December 1853. Listen to perhaps the best known movement, “The Shepherd’s Farewell,” with Choeur de Montreal Orchestra and Charles Dutoit.

33. The English composer and chorus conductor Eric Whitacre’s choral-piece “Lux Aurumque” (Golden Light) has reached a cult-like status among singers and choirs around the world. After Whitacre released this album the world also saw an explosive growth, in part due to the social media, and as the popularity of this particular piece rose so immensely, so did the number of performances. And it deserves it! Here he conducts his own vocal ensemble.

34. Palestrina’s Alma Redemptoris Mater is another example of how advanced the composers of early music were in terms of compositional technique. This is a choral piece for eight voices that Palestrina composed in the late 1500s. The lyrics, celebrating the Virgin Mary, were written nearly 500 years before that!

35. Then we arrive in Russia – and if there is something the Russians knows how to do particularly well, it’s singing! Their choral tradition is long and beautiful. Here the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir sings Zastupnitse Userdnaya by Pavel Grigorievitch Tchesnokov.

36. “Away In A Manger” is also one of the most beautiful Christmas carols that exists, especially this edition that again enlists Harry Christophers and The Sixteen choir.

37. The Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel has indisputably one of the most beautiful dark male voices I know of. Here he sings the Austrian Christmas song “Still, still, still…Weil’s Kindlein schlafen Will” (Quiet…The Little Baby Has To Sleep).

38-40. One of the Christmas pieces I love the most is undoubtedly Corelli’s Concerto Grosso, with the subtitle “Fatto per la notte di Natale.” It is Baroque music of the finest caliber, and here played by one of the ensembles that are strongest at this exact repertoire, namely Il Giardino Armonico.

41. The journey continues to Sweden with the Swedish vocal-quintet, The Real Group, which arguably is one of the best of their kind. Here they sing “Bereden väg för Herran” – Prepare the Way for the Lord – in their own arrangement. And here you can really hear their ability to control the polyphonic harmonization, which Monteverdi, Palestrina and Schütz, were the pioneers of about 500 years earlier!

42. Next stop is Norway, with one of their greatest composers, Edward Grieg. Anne-Sophie von Otter has had an impressive international career, including the singing of Lieder and here’s a taste for you. She is accompanied by her permanent pianist Bengt Forsberg in Grieg’s “Lullaby of Christmas”.

43. The second track on the list from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is the incredibly beautiful interlude – “Sinfonia.” Here you can really hear Bach’s genius for composing themes in between one another and changing within the different instruments. Here performed by Virtuosi Saxoniae and Ludwig Güttler.

44. One of the more modern Christmas pieces is Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, written for choir, soloists and harp. The harp gives a unique sound together with the choir and the beautiful lyrics. Britten wrote the piece in 1942 while crossing the Atlantic from the U.S. to England.

45. “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” is almost inevitable in December across the globe. Bing Crosby’s immortal version of Irving Berlin’s evergreen has reportedly sold over 50 million copies. It is sung here by the soprano Kiri te Kanawa.

46. Back in the Baroque period, we are with Marc-Antoine Charpentiers “Messe de Minuit pour Noël,” composed in approximately 1690.

47. And immediately on to another excellent vocal ensemble – here consisting only of men, The Kings Singers, who here sing “The Quiet Heart.” Beautiful and touching!

48. And we are approaching the end of our journey around the world of classical Christmas music and I think we have traveled far and wide. The stop is in England with the composer John Rutter, one of the most popular contemporary British composers, his Christmas piece A Gaelic Blessing, you hear “Meditation,” accompanied by solo-harpist Catrin Finch.

49. The penultimate track takes us back to the brilliant Danish chamber-choir Musica Ficta and their conductor Bo Holten. They sing one of the most beloved Danish Christmas hymns: “Dejlig er den himmel blå” – How Beautiful the Blue Sky Is.

50. And here we are, already finished, with Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece of an opera, La Bohéme. The opera takes place in Paris at Christmas where the young and sick Mimi meets Rodolfo – a poor writer. They fall in love and after a few hours, in one of the perhaps most poignant pieces of music-drama, Mimi ends her life in the company of her beloved Rodolfo and her good friends. Here, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko sings “Donde lieta Usci” from the third act.

At the end of this tour of beautiful Christmas music from around the world, I just want to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas.

And remember if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me at morten.ernst.lassen@tidalhifi.com

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