The previous blog post was not the last one for the year. I had a request for a Christmas playlist and put one together quickly yesterday evening. Here it is:
A few words on the list (if you are all fed up with words, just listen to the music;). The opening piece, Mendelssohn’s Weihnachten, is something I only came across a few years ago. I love the contradiction of its small form and rich texture. Here sung by one of the finest European professional choirs, the RIAS Chamber Choir of Berlin under Hans-Christoph Rademann.
The second piece has a strange provenance. It is originally an Ukranian choral song called Šedryk by Mikola Leontovytš. It was written in 1914 and based on an old Ukranian folk melody and text celebrating the new year. How did this song end up an American carol? A Ukranian emigrant, conductor Peter Wilhousky rewrote the text and performed it on radio in the 1930s. This lovely performance is by a choir that was a great favourite of mine, The Dale Warland Singers of Minneapolis, USA.
One of the loveliest traditional texts for the season is O magnum mysterium, which celebrates the mystery and sacrament of the animals being the first to see the newborn Christ. Giovanni Gabrieli worked in San Marco in Venice around the turn of the 17th Century and is best known for his polychoral works. This motet is for two four-part choirs, one of higher voices and the other of lower voices. Sung here by Lumen Valo, an eight-voice ensemble I have sung in since 1993(!).
After Gabrieli, what could be more appropriate than a message from Gabriel? This Basque carol found its way into English Christmas carol collections in the late 19th Century and has since been arranged many times for choir. The text relates the visit of Archangel Gabriel to Mary and Jim Clements’ arrangement is here sung beautifully by Voces8.
Maria durch ein Dornwald ging was originally not a carol, but a German pilgrimage song. The melody probably dates back to medieval times. This arrangement by Gottfried Wolters is my favourite – simple, yet it colours the text in a sophisticated manner. This is one of Lumen Valo’s favourites.
If a classical composer can be something of a one-hit wonder, I guess Franz Biebl is your man. The Ave Maria with chant from the Angelus (Gabriel at it again) is a wonderful romantic pearl from the 1960s. It is best known in its original version for male choir. The wonderful Swedish Orphei Drängar sing, conducted by Robert Sund.
I used to conduct a lovely female choir (Akademiska Damkören Lyran) and we commissioned a traditional carol from a fine Finnish vocal jazz / choral singer Säde Bartling. The arrangement is full of light and optimism and Lyran sing it wonderfully here under my very fine successor Jutta Seppinen.
Pentatonix is a wonderful a cappella group and I love their Christmas music. Mary, did you know is a small song with a surprisingly powerful text and this arrangement has my approval.
Eric Whitacre’s Lux aurumque is a wonderful, dark and shimmering piece that reminds me of the colour of old brass. Its best version is for male choir. This is my male choir Akademiska Sångföreningen from a few years back.
Christmas music tends to be slow, beautiful and emotional. It’s nice to come across something that is energetic, upbeat and fun. Anders Öhrwall was a fine Swedish choral conductor, whose Stockholm Bach Choir was a brilliant instrument. Tre vise män is a dance of joy celebrating the three wise men from the Orient.
Slow, beautiful and emotional. Well, that is pretty much Morten Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium in a nutshell. Soft harmonies, flowing lines, growing waves of intensity and the age-old text. My Christmas is not complete without this piece. Lumen Valo had the honour of singing this piece to the composer in California about 10 years ago. He seemed to approve.
In 1818 the organ of a small Austrian parish church was in disrepair and the local teacher cum organist had to come up with a Plan B for the Christmas morning service. The local priest wrote a poem and Herr Gruber wrote a little song for two singers, guitar and the choir (joining in in the repeat of the ending of each verse). Gruber and priest Joseph Mohr sang with Mohr on the guitar and the parish choir joined in. And this little song became perhaps the best known carol the world has known. This Lumen Valo version has four verses that are what the original might have sounded like, one verse with the traditional four-part harmony and the last verse arranged by Malcom Sargent.