10 Christmas albums to love

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010; 11:33 AM

Is it obvious that a third-generation atheist, descended from Portuguese and Ukrainian Jews, should love Christmas carols more than almost any other music? My wife, raised as a solid, choir-singing Protestant, thinks there's a simple explanation: Since I don't connect Christmas carols to childhood Sundays spent bored to death in church, I can take them as nothing more than pretty songs that evoke childhood and gifts.

She may be right (she usually is), but I think there's something more to it than that. I think that, in some inchoate way, Christians got the Christmas art form right. From something like 1200 to 1900, a tradition was perfected for evoking a set of warm emotions, just slightly bittersweet, that were never quite as concentrated elsewhere in our culture. That, at least, describes the carols that do the job for me, and I'd like to pretend my taste for them isn't completely arbitrary. I can't stomach "Frosty" or "Rudolf" or Bing's "White"-ness; jazzy, rocky and poppy carols make me faintly ill. But give me "Adam lay ybounden" or "Pat-a-Pan" or "Good King Wenceslas" - even "Silent Night" - in just the perfect, heartfelt, sober version, and I start to beam.

I buy new Christmas albums every year. Most don't do the trick.

Here are 10 that do.

"The Holly and the Ivy," by Alfred Deller and the Deller Consort, on Vanguard Classics. This is the carol album to beat all others. (But maybe I'm biased: It was the only carol album we had when I was little.) People who worked with Deller, the pioneering countertenor who died in 1979, continue to insist that he was one of the greatest, most genuine artists of our era. His consort may not have been as great, but his spirit infuses the singing they back him up with.

"Star of the Magi," on Atma Classique. This is a mix of older carols sung in early-music style by countertenor Daniel Taylor - the closest thing to a true Deller heir - and soprano Suzie LeBlanc. Hearing it makes breathing a joy.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier's great "Midnight Mass," from about 1694, sung by the Ensemble Vocal de Nantes under Paul Colleaux, on Arion. Every Christmas Eve in Quebec, where I grew up, Quebecois families gather in church to hear this piece of baroque vocal music - as they've been doing for centuries. There are plenty of fine versions of the piece, but this one seems suitably sprightly and notably French.

"Nativite en Nouvelle-France," by the Ensemble Nouvelle-France, on Oratorio. Okay, I admit this is obscure: Here are many of Charpentier's carols in their original folk versions, as they might have been heard in 18th-century Quebec. This makes me think of winter nights in Montreal when the thermometer dipped way below freezing - and the music could still warm you.

"Noels a l'orgue" ("Organ Noels"), by French organist Rene Saorgin, on Harmonia Mundi. More of the same French carols, this time turned into baroque organ variations. Crafting these noels was one of the great traditions of 18th-century France. This album is mostly Claude Benigne Balbastre (it has a bit of yuletide Bach as well), but other fine ones feature noels by Louis Claude Daquin and Jean-Francois Dandrieu.

"Messe pour le tems de Noel" ("Yuletide Mass"), composed by Michel Corrette in about 1788 for only two voices and sung here by Sylvie De May and Francoise Masset, with Les Amusemens du Parnasse under Stephane Bechy. This takes off where Charpentier's mass leaves off. It is one of the last glories of pre-Guillotine church culture in France. It is also almost entirely unknown. This was its world-premiere recording.

"Carols From New College," on CRD. After all that esoterica, time for a straightforward album of classic carols, sung by an English boys choir from Oxford. This is Christmas at its purest. Kings College, Cambridge, has the most famous Christmas albums, but I heard "New" a bunch of times live, so those are the lads for me. (Christmas seems like a time for underdogs, anyway.)

"Christmas With the Trapp Family Singers," recorded between 1951 and 1953 and re-released on Deutsche Grammophon. A recent acquisition that, for me, sounds like what you'd want to hear from carolers doing the rounds, or in a visit to the house of some musical family friends.

"Michael Praetorius: In Dulci Jubilo," Trinity College Choir, from Cambridge, under Richard Marlow. The first German Protestants gave us (or perfected) some of our greatest carol tunes: "Good Christian Men, Rejoice," "A Child Is Born in Bethlehem." And Praetorius, a choral-music genius of the early 17th-century, provides them to us in the most lovely, varied arrangements. This album ranges through many of his versions, for all sorts of vocal forces.

"Medieval Christmas," by Pro Cantione Antiqua under Mark Brown, on Musical Concepts. The roots of Christmas caroling, accompanied by lively instruments from the Middle Ages. Some of the songs, written in strange modes, have a peculiar ring. Listening to them, you realize that it is a sound that filtered into many later carols and made them stand out from other music that we hear.

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