Certain that I am not alone in having certain pieces of music that I listen to each Advent and Christmas – and which really mark this time of year – I thought I’d share with you some of my favourites, in the hope that these beautiful examples of sacred music draw you deeper into the mystery of the Lord’s coming, as they have for me.
As far as Advent is concerned, I can’t recommend anything better than Veni Emmanuel sung by the King’s Singers on their Christmas album. The arrangement is by Philip Lawson, who sang with them until recently and at whose final concert in Salisbury Cathedral I was privileged to be. I’d also edge you toward the very beautiful Magnificat Quinti Toni by Praetorius, interspersed with verses from Joseph lieber, Joseph mein, on a wonderful recording of his settings of the Magnificat and various motets, by the Cardinall’s Musick directed by Andrew Carwood.
Westminster Cathedral choir get a fair bit of playtime here, too. Their recording of Christmas Vespers is stunning, especially if you appreciate (as I do) their robust plainchant and the sensitive organ accompaniment. Also, from a few years ago, I would recommend their recording of Missa Queramus cum pastoribus and the accompanying motet, by Morales. If you enjoy the first, you might wish to try this Gabrieli Consort reconstruction of a Christmas Day Mass in Salisbury. It’s a little old now, but the quality of sound is excellent and the recording is worth hearing. The sleeve notes are worth having in themselves.
If you want a recording of good English 20th century Christmas music (Howells, Leighton, Richard Rodney Bennett, Warlock), you might enjoy Polyphony’s 2005 O Magnum Mysterium, which also includes some interesting chant. If you like the Morten Lauridsen motet by the same name, I’d point you back to Westminster and this excellent performance – live from Midnight Mass a few years ago – on YouTube. If you want a recording to own, the London Oratory Totus tuus disc is probably the best I have heard.
Whether or not you know the Charpentier Messe de Minuit, you will enjoy the two volumes by the Aradia Ensemble on Naxos. It’s not a liturgical recording, but the French carols upon which the movements of the Mass are based intersperse the parts of the ordinary of the Mass, and make this is a very interesting and beautiful recording. It’s also very inexpensive!
Finally, because these mean so much to me personally, I want to suggest this recording from Winchester (with your author on the treble line somewhere) and this, which preceded my time there but which I listen to each year. On the latter, you will find what I still hold to be the quintessential sound of an English Christmas – the Fantasia on Christmas Carols by Ralph Vaughan Williams, sung by Don Sweeney with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Winchester Cathedral choir under David Hill. It also includes an excellent recording of Warlock’s Benedicamus Domino and Bethlehem Down. If that doesn’t make your Christmas… Enjoy!