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Gifts for Imaginative Conservatives: Music for Christmas

Gifts for Imaginative Conservatives: Music for Christmas

Christmas-themed classical musicBelow are recommendations of Christmas-themed classical music, appropriate for gifting. In selecting among recorded versions of works, I have taken into account affordability as well as excellence, so that you can stretch your dollar. As I suspect that some of you will also want some of these recordings for yourselves, I am noting the mp3 price too.

  • Handel’s Messiah is especially popular at Christmas time, though it is only “Part the First” that pertains to the season, the latter two sections addressing Christ’s passion and resurrection. There are some 100 versions of this magisterial work currently available, played by ensembles of various sizes and in different styles. There is even a version in German re-orchestrated by Mozart. To complicate matters further when it comes to choosing a recording, the score itself has had several incarnations; Handel adjusted the assignment of vocal parts for particular performances, taking into consideration the quality of the singers he had at hand. I recommend here a fairly recent recording from Scotland, that by the Dunedin Consort and Players, conducted by John Butt ($21.74 CD; $9.49 mp3). Played by a smallish ensemble and employing what is known as “period practice” (sprightly tempos, limited use of vibrato by vocalists and players), this recording uses the seldom-heard 1742 “Dublin version,” which is yet not so different from more common versions of the score as to upset the fan of Messiah who receives this as a gift. With glorious singing, lively playing, sensitive conducting, and excellent sound, Butt’s version is truly one of the great realizations of this work.
  • Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is synonymous with the Christmas season, and I am unashamed—despite its use to the point of kitsch in advertising— to say that it deserves a place among the greatest works in the Western canon. It has been well served on disc, but the interpretation I most often return to is the one by the Kirov Orchestra under the baton of Valery Gergiev ($14.52 CD; $11.49 mp3). Predictably, Russians play this music better than anyone else, and Gergiev has the added advantage of being the only version that fits onto a single CD. Yes, his speeds tend to be fast, but not one number feels unduly rushed, and the overall effect is one of excitement mixed with enchantment.
  • Berlioz’ L’Enfance du Christ is little remembered today, save for “The Shepherds’ Farewell,” which pops up surprisingly often on classical Christmas CDs. The complete oratorio is a work that deserves a better fate, as it is a true masterpiece. Berlioz called it a “sacred trilogy,” and its sections describe Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, the flight of the holy family into Egypt, and Joseph, Mary, and Jesus’ safe arrival in the town of Sais. It is operatic in certain sections, quietly devotional in others, and unabashedly dramatic when necessary. Berlioz’ unique sound-world is unmistakable throughout. With this work the self-professed agnostic came closest to revealing that in truth the Hound of Heaven was never far behind him. I will recommend the only period-instrument recording of this work, and one appropriately played by French forces, the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, conducted by the Belgian, Philippe Herreweghe ($18.04 CD; $15.98 mp3)
  • Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve Suite is another rarity. Perhaps it is because the composer himself is seriously underrated, or because the opera from which the suite is drawn tells the decidedly not-so-heartwarming tale of the Devil’s attempt to steal souls and a priest’s effort to seduce a young Russian woman. Be that as it may, the Christmas Eve Suite, at some twenty-five minutes, is of a perfect length to be included in seasonal concerts, and the nasty details of its underlying story can be ignored as one revels in its wordless music. The suite’s magical opening, depicting the stars and comets against the dark, cold Russian sky, is simply unforgettable. The piece ends with rousing dances so characteristic of the composer. Once again, I am recommending a version of a work played by a composer’s compatriots, this one by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Igor Golovschin ($10.98 CD; $7.99 mp3). Other works by Rimsky-Korsakov are included on this CD, including the more popular Mlada Suite.
  • It seems that many of the classic recordings of Christmas carols performed in a traditional manner are no longer available in CD format, including An American Christmas, by the Boston Camerata and Joel Cohen ($5.99 mp3). So this one is a treat just for you, dear reader. Put it on for your family and friends at Christmastime, however, and they will want to download it for themselves. The carols on this album are rooted in colonial and nineteenth-century America and are played by an American ensemble that is legendary in early music circles. Here is Christmas music, simply and beautifully played, shorn of the accretions of schlock that have beset so many old carols. Some of the songs here are familiar, many are not, but they are all glorious, alternately haunting and joyful. If I could have only one album of traditional Christmas music, this could well be my choice.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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