Music for Advent and Christmas

December 6, 2010

Advent is now upon us. In our household that means, among other things, that the hip-hop and heavy metal get pushed off the turntable to make way for more traditional and seasonal fare. Each year it is my custom to add one record of Advent or Christmas music to our collection; this year, for reasons attributable more or less directly to a lack of discipline, we have added three. All three, I must say, are excellent. Let me be more specific:

Puer Natus Est – Stile Antico: I have written before (more than once) about the young British ensemble Stile Antico. In just a few short years they have established themselves as one of the finest choirs singing Renaissance polyphony, notable for their gorgeous blend, clear textures, crystalline tuning, and interesting programmes. This, their most recent disc, is a collection of English polyphony, principally from the sixteenth century, on themes related to Advent and Christmas (for the most part). The disc is structured around Thomas Tallis’ monumental seven-voice Missa Puer Natus Est and William Byrd’s miniature Advent Propers. To this they add an assortment of superb pieces by John Sheppard, John Taverner, and Robert White, whose very beautiful Magnificat gets a rare airing. As usual with this choir, the singing is nuanced and attentive, and even if I agree with Charles Downey that it is not quite up to the standards of their earlier recordings (not quite, mind you), this disc is nonethless outstanding. [Listen to samples]

The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols, and Ballads for Christmas – Anonymous 4: I think this is the third album of Christmas music that Anonymous 4 have made, and it maintains the high standards we have come to expect from them. This time the repertoire is focused around fifteenth-century England, with a few later additions from America to illustrate the musical debts and departures in the tradition. The carols on this disc are remarkable for their structure: a short refrain (often in Latin) alternates with verses in English (Middle English, naturally). It is not all that often that we have the opportunity to hear Middle English sung, so this is a treat. Much of this music is rooted in popular song, and the melodies are catchy. Needless to say, it has rarely been sung as well as it is here. The sound that Anonymous 4 produces is angelic.  [Listen to samples]

And Glory Shone Around – The Rose Ensemble: If you prefer your Christmas music a little earthier, this disc from The Rose Ensemble (new to me) could be just the thing. It is billed as “Early American Carols, Country Dances, Southern Harmony Hymns, and Shaker Spiritual Songs”, and that is accurate. The ensemble is small, with one voice to a part, and accompanied by fiddles, drums, flutes, and various plucked instruments. Not all of the songs are related to Christmas, but most are, and the performances are lively and accomplished. This certainly makes a nice change from the usual Christmas fare. [Listen to samples]

5 Responses to “Music for Advent and Christmas”

  1. Lisa Drew Says:

    Thank you for you kind words in regard to our disc “And Glory Shone Around” – I have to say it’s probably one of my favorites from our 9 CDs and I’m glad you enjoy it!

    Happy Holidays to you ~
    Lisa Drew
    alto with The Rose Ensemble

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thank you for leaving a comment, Lisa. It is always a treat to hear from the people who make the music we love. I have been listening to And Glory Shone Around this morning, and enjoying it thoroughly. I will definitely look around for your other CDs. Have a Merry Christmas.

  3. Janet Cupo Says:

    All I want is an Advent album with nothing but Advent songs–not Advent and Christmas songs–not Lessons and Carols–just Advent songs. Is that too much ask? There are plenty out there to make a nice album. Somebody should do it.


  4. cburrell Says:

    You are right, Janet, that would be a good idea. I have been trying to think of an album that meets those specifications, and I cannot. (It would be easier if I could look at my CDs, but they are still boxed up, waiting to be shipped to you as soon as Mac sends his stereo to me.) I suppose the Christmas songs are just too alluring, especially from a marketing point of view. Advent pretty much gets steamrolled in the wide world, after all.

  5. cburrell Says:

    Janet, I did a bit of looking, and I found a disc of Adventine Gregorian chant, a disc of Bach’s cantatas for Advent, and a disc that bills itself as “Music for Advent”. On aesthetic grounds I cannot recommend the latter.

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