Mrs. C says: Christmas without music is unthinkable. Nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared: “Without music, life would be a mistake.” And I especially like the take of Plato, who said: “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” At Christmas, this classical philosopher and mathematician’s verdict on music surely has to be squared or cubed.
Ed Elf: I see what you did there, Mrs C. Mathematics…squared or cubed. My favourite maths terms is Pi. Mrs. C: Why? Ed Elf: Because it reminds me of pie.
Mrs. C: You really are a very simple soul, aren’t you dear? Moving swiftly on, here is a selection of music we believe you may wish to include in your classical Christmas collection to ensure that in this festive season you give soul to the universe…flight to the imagination…charm and gaiety to life and everything.
“Andrea Bocelli: My Christmas”
Andrea Bocelli’s Christmas album is a delightful mix of 15 songs that includes duets with Mary J. Blige, Natalie Cole, Reba McEntire and Katherine Jenkins. “Adeste Fideles” is the most moving of the tracks, while “God Bless Us Everyone” from the Disney film “A Christmas Carol” is stirring. Also worth listening to over the holiday season is the angelic Italian tenor’s version of Gounod’s “Ave Maria”, delivered with such passion on his “Sacred Arias” album.
“A Christmas Collection” – The Pavao String Quartet
The Pavao formed in 1998 at the Royal Academy of Music and won a Grammy award in 2012 for their “Light and Gold” CD, recorded with Eric Whitacre. Their Christmas collection, which raised funds for ‘Breakthrough Breast Cancer’ charity, is a wonderful soundtrack for the festive season – the highlight being the captivating work “The Snowman”.
“Christmas with Kiri Te Kanawa: Carols from Coventry Cathedral”
New Zealand’s operatic superstar Dame Kiri Te Kanawa sings a wonderful collection of 21 Christmas favourites – the highlight, quite fittingly for the venue, being “Coventry Carol”. Dame Kiri came to worldwide fame by singing at the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana in the eighties and ever since has been an international treasure. She announced her retirement from the stage in 2017.
“Jubilo” by Alison Balsom
Alison Balsom is one of the great solo instrumental performers of our age and her seasonal offering “Jubilo” perfectly illustrates the fact. This album is inspired by a festive Baroque repertoire, including concertos by Bach, Corelli, Fasch and Torelli. Alison, who recorded this album on the natural trumpet for the first time since her successful “Sound the Trumpet”, is joined by the Academy of Ancient Music under the direction of violinist Pavlo Besnosiuk. Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” features Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Bach’s “In Dulce Jubilo”, performed in arrangements for trumpet and organ, forms the ideal foil to the full orchestral sound of the concertos. It all adds up to a winter-themed album worthy of any classical collection and demonstrates why Balsom is one of the world’s most decorated and sought-after performers.
“Carols & Christmas Songs” – Sir Bryn Terfel
This is a stunning two-disc collection from marvellous Welsh tenor Sir Bryn Terfel, one of the most prized jewels in the British classical music crown who was knighted in the Queen’s 2017 New Year’s Honours List. Terfel is joined on Disc One by tenor Rolando Villazon and harpist Katrin Finch and adds his considerable talent to Bing Crosby’s original vocals on “White Christmas”. The nine songs on Disc Two are in Welsh. Triumphant highlights include Terfel’s wonderful version of “Still, Still, Still” and the gorgeously arranged “Away in a Manger”.
“Midwinter’s Eve – Music for Christmas” – The London Chamber Orchestra
This heavenly collection of seasonal music was arranged for and performed by The London Chamber Orchestra. There are seventeen instrumental tracks, opening with “Deck the Halls” before taking in such pieces as J.S. Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and the Galician carol “Moita Festa” before concluding with “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. The dark midwinter was never so illuminated.
This oratorio was first performed in Dublin in April 1742 and is perhaps the best-known and most-performed choral work in the world today. Created for Easter, it has also become a fixture of the Christmas season.
“Carols with St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir”
In 2015, Classic FM presented St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir’s first Christmas album in a decade – and it was more than worth the wait. There are 19 tracks on this Decca collection, highlighted by such traditional favourites as “Silent Night”, “In the Bleak Midwinter”, “O Holy Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”. But there is also new material to savour, delivered from the heart of London under the direction of Andrew Carwood. A particular joy is the performance of Philip Stopford’s stunning setting of the 16th century “Lully Lulla Lullay”. And it’s so pleasing to hear Graham Jordan Ellis’s captivating but rarely recorded “There is No Rose” and the magnificent “All Bells in Paradise” by John Rutter. St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir formed some 900 years ago.
“The Three Tenors at Christmas”
Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras are three legends of the operatic stage, who brought their brilliance to the wider world with their magnificent 1990 World Cup concert in Rome. This album is a spin-off and offers subtle variety to any Christmas music collection as it also contains tracks suitable for year-round listening, like “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”, “Panis Angelicus”, “Agnus Dei” and “Ave Maria”.
“Christmas Time” – Craig Ogden
Australian born guitarist Craig Ogden delivers 16 festive tunes that are given his own impressive instrumental take. The album was released for Christmas 2013 and followed his number one classical chart successes with “The Guitarist” and “Summertime”. In 2004 he became the youngest instrumentalist to receive a Fellowship Award from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.
“One Voice at Christmas” – Aled Jones
On “One Voice at Christmas” (released on the Classic FM label on November 25, 2016) Aled again duets with his younger self – just as he did earlier in 2016 on his No.1 album “One Voice”. The third ands final album in the series in the 2017 “One Voice: Believe”. The concept was made possible by a recent discovery of the last ever recordings made by Aled as a boy. This 13-track album includes a new Howard Blake arrangement of Aled’s childhood hit “Walking in the Air” and such seasonal favourites as “O Holy Night” and “Away in a Manger”, as well as Aled’s duet with the late Sir Terry Wogan on “Little Drummer Boy” and a duet with guitarist John Williams on “Silent Night”. Aled launched “One Voice at Christmas” in October 2016 at 18,000 feet on a jet plane between Cardiff and London. For the first time, this popular Welsh performer was able to sing “Walking in the Air” while actually in the air – helped by his carol-singing passengers.
“Christmas” – Voces8
Voces8 are eight voices in gorgeous unison who released this festive album in August 2012. This is a cappella tranquillity and beauty on 18 tracks from a remarkably versatile vocal group. Look out also for their 2014 album “Eventide” – perfect for the transition from Christmas to the wintery solemnity of January and beyond.
“Christmas Around the World” – Andre Rieu
Dutch violinist and conductor Andre Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra have helped popularise classical music around the globe. His concert tours sell out and his albums top the charts worldwide. The waltzing king has released a number of Christmas albums. One of our favourites is also one Andre calls his “most beautiful” and that’s “Christmas Around the World”. His orchestra and choir, along with the delightful Japanese children’s choir and three splendid sopranos, deliver such festive compositions as “Silent Night”, “Ave Maria”, “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” and “O Holy Night”. We also recommend Rieu’s “December Lights”: 21 tracks including such Christmas classics as “White Christmas” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” along with the more unusual “Old Toy Trains”, “Petit Papa Noel” and the title track “December Lights”.
“The Christmas Story” – Heinrich Schutz
This Christmas work is by Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672), generally considered to be the most important German composer before Johann Sebastian Bach. Conductor Jeremy Summerly and his Oxford Camerata, along with impressive tenor Paul Agnew, make this recording of the splendidly powerful sacred masterpiece a marvellous piece of any Christmas collection.
“My Christmas” – Placido Domingo
Celebrated Spanish tenor Placido Domingo brings us 13 festive tracks dear to his heart, helped by such tremendous talent as Idina Menzel, Hayley Westenra, Jackie Evancho, Helene Fischer, The Piano Guys and Vincent Niclo. On the classic “White Christmas”, Domingo’s even joined by his 50-year-old son Placido Junior. Our standout piece on this 2015 collection has to be “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, delivered with such joy and gusto by the great man and The Voices of Los Angeles Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Programme. Placido Senior’s repertoire is rich with more than 140 roles, both as tenor and baritone. He has some 3500 career performances to his credit and more than 100 recordings of complete operas, compilations of arias, duets and crossover discs. One of the legendary Three Tenors, Domingo turned 75 in January 2016.
“Carols from King’s” – Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
No Christmas is complete without the gorgeous strains of the choir of King’s College flowing through the house. The enchanting service from King’s College, Cambridge was first held on Christmas Eve 1918. Eric Milner-White (1884-1963), the Dean of the college, introduced it to help mark the end of World War I. Ten years later, the BBC broadcast the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols for the first time. It can still be heard on BBC Radio4 at 3pm on Christmas Eve and Carols from King’s can be seen later the same day on BBC2. The tradition of starting the service with “Once in Royal David’s City” continues to this day. Many festive albums by the celebrated Choir of King’s are available to buy or download, including the 2014 “Favourite Carols from King’s”. Ownership of at least one is a must if you are collating a Christmas music library. Discover more about this wonderful choral tradition on our Popular Carols & Collections page.
“Carols from Queen’s” – Choir of Queen’s College, Oxford
Carols from King’s is an essential part of any collection – and we think this marvellous gift of a 2015 collection from Queen’s should be, too. Many of the seasonal pieces on this album, directed by Owen Rees, have deep associations with the renowned institution of Queen’s College, Oxford, especially “The Boar’s Head Carol”, “The Three Kings”, “A Spotless Rose” and “In the Bleak Midwinter”. Several of the composers and arrangers of carols featured had direct links with the college. “The Boar’s Head Carol” originated at Queen’s in the 14th century and has been sung every year since at the Boar’s Head Feast in the College Hall as a boar’s head is brought forth on a silver platter. Harold Darke (“In the Bleak Midwinter”) and Ivor Atkins (“The Three Kings”) were both members of Queen’s – and prominent 20th century British composers Kenneth Leighton (“Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child”) and Herbert Howells (“A Spotless Rose”) both studied there. This is a 22-track collection of the highest quality and comes highly recommended.
“Jingle Wells: Christmas Music from Wells Cathedral”
Having a selection of carolling albums is key to ensure a variety of songs, tunes and arrangements. Wells Cathedral Choir starts this album with, what else, but “Jingle Bells” and also delivers favourites like “The Holly and the Ivy” and “Silent Night”. But Wells also offer something different in Eric Whitacre’s “Lux Aurumque” and Peter Gritton’s “Follow That Star”. Gramophone’s verdict on this album’s release in 2012 was: “Wells’s burgeoning reputation as one of the best cathedral choirs in the country is further bolstered by the faultless tuning and blend of the strong and broad sound for which its boys are known.”
“The John Rutter Songbook”; “The John Rutter Christmas Album” & “John Rutter: The Colours of Christmas”
Gifted composer, conductor and arranger John Rutter is synonymous with choral music – especially festive works. He has crafted so many uplifting Christmas pieces like “What Sweeter Music”, “Angel Carol” and “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol”. Christmas 2014 saw the release of the two-disc album “The John Rutter Songbook”, comprising 40 personal selections made by the great man. Disc One has 20 of his favourite pieces of seasonal music, including “Christ is the Morning Star”. Disc Two contains 20 of Rutter’s works suitable for all-year-long listening like “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” and “A Gaelic Blessing”. “The Colours of Christmas” album includes “Star Carol”, “I Wonder as I Wander” and the title track among a host of traditional favourites. John Rutter has to be part of your Christmas. His albums are available for purchase or download and a selection of his music can be heard all December long on Classic FM.
“Howard Goodall’s Enchanted Carols” – Howard Goodall’s Enchanted Voices
Howard Goodall, for some time Classic FM’s composer in residence, is an internationally renowned composer of great versatility. His TV theme tunes include “Blackadder” and “The Vicar of Dibley” and he’s written EMMY award-winning and BAFTA-nominated film scores. His Enchanted Voices lay their own festive magic on traditional Advent and Christmas carols, as well as six original carols. Enchantment unconfined.
“The Rose in the Middle of Winter: Carols by Bob Chilcott”
Bob Chilcott’s 2013 Christmas album received almost universal acclaim. The choral works, sung by Commotio, are stunning. It is a collection you can enjoy well into the New Year as this rose of an album eases you through the winter darkness.
“Yulesfest! – Christmas Music from Trinity College Cambridge”
Festive choral music delivered in shimmering gold by Trinity College Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Layton. This 2015 Hyperion Records release has 21 Christmas tracks to enjoy, some old, some new and some with sparkling, fresh arrangements. Indeed four pieces by the talented Owain Park, Trinity’s Senior Organ Scholar, are featured, including the first recordings of his arrangements of “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day”, “Shepherds’ Cradle Song” and our particular favourite “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. We also love the choir’s performance of “Sleigh Ride”. Take a listen: you’ll know Yule has arrived.
“Christmas in Harvard Square” – St. Paul’s Choir School
Be transported into festive nirvana by the Boys of St.Paul’s Choir School and their angelic voices. “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”, “Mater Ora Filium” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” are among the enchanting 19 tracks. This most desirable recording will enhance any collection.
“Song of the Nativity” – The Sixteen and Harry Christophers
This wonderful album includes modern classics like John Rutter’s “There is a Flower”, Bob Chilcott’s “The Shepherd’s Carol” and James MacMillan’s “O Radiant Dawn” along with centuries old traditional carols. “The Saviour’s Carol”, “A Gallery Carol” and “Adam Lay Ybounden” are some of the older tunes on the album: less heard nowadays, but worthy of greater renown. The always splendid Sixteen and Harry Christophers have breathed new life into them in this wide-ranging anthology spanning some 600 years.
“Christmas from Tewkesbury” – Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum
Directed by Simon Bell, with Carleton Etherington on organ, this beautiful album by Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum includes “Adam Lay Ybounden”, “Ding Dong! Merrily on High”, “This is the Truth Sent from Above” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. Since the Abbey School closed in 2006, the choristers – renowned for their Evensong during the week in school term time – have been educated at Dean Close Preparatory School in Cheltenham but continue their daily offering of worship at the Abbey.
“Libera – The Christmas Album”
The South London boys’ choir Libera was formed in 1999 and their first Christmas album is an angelic collection of popular, secular and sacred seasonal works. The 16 tracks include songs not widely covered on other seasonal albums: “Carol of the Bells”, “Corpus Christi Carol”, “Sing the Story” and “Jubilate Deo”. There is such purity of voice and haunting harmony in each and every song.
“Britten: A Ceremony of Carols”
Benjamin Britten’s Christmas works – performed superbly by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge led by Stephen Cleobury – are an excellent accompaniment to traditional carol collections. There are 24 tracks on this album, all elevated by the magnificence of the celebrated choir and the inspiring King’s Chapel. Familiar, sing-a-long festive tunes they are not – bar the late bonus track burst of “The Holly and the Ivy”. But Christmas musical beauty is not the possession only of the familiar or popular.
“A Christmas Present from Polyphony”
The delight of this splendid Christmas present from Polyphony and Stephen Layton comes from the beautiful renditions of some of the more obscure Yuletide works like “A Hymn to the Virgin” by Benjamin Britten, “Magnificat” by Arvo Part, “Sing Lullaby” by Herbert Howells, “Lullaby My Jesus” by Peter Warlock and “Ave, Maris Stella” by Edvard Grieg. Stephen Layton founded the critically acclaimed Polyphony choir in 1986 and American magazine “Encore” once reviewed them thus: “Possibly the best small professional choir in the world.” In 2006, Layton became Director of Music at Trinity College, Cambridge and three years later was appointed the City of London Sinfonia’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor.
“A Festival of Fanfares and Carols” – The Cory Band
This brilliant Welsh brass ensemble delivers a host of quality arrangements including our particular favourite, the superb “Box of Delights” from “A Carol Symphony”. The Cory Band hails from the Rhondda Valley in Wales and was formed in 1884, making it one of the oldest brass bands in the world today – and very much one of the best. Joining the band on this recording are their neighbours The Treorchy Male Choir, as well as The International Songsters of The Salvation Army. Other tracks on the album include “The Snow Carol”; “Gaudete”; “The Irish Carol”; “Unto Us is Born a Son”; “Candlelight Carol” and “Mary’s Boy Child”.
“A Leroy Anderson Christmas”
Christmas is complete only on hearing Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” and that’s just one of 22 tracks on an album rich in rousing brass. Other orchestral highlights include “Wassail Song”, “In Dulci Jubilo” and “Patapan”. This instrumental collection makes a pleasing alternative to traditional vocal arrangements of carols and songs. Anderson (1908-1975) will forever be linked to the Boston Pops Orchestra and was described by legendary composer John Williams as “one of the great American masters of light orchestral music.”
“Silent Nights” – Nigel Hess
British radio station Classic FM commissioned this album in 2010 – a superb selection of traditional festive favourites arranged for piano and strings by composer Nigel Hess, who himself plays the piano accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s string section. It is a beautifully gentle instrumental Christmas album: sometimes soothing, occasionally moving and altogether charming.
“Christmas Concertos” – Trevor Pinnock & The English Concert
Musical director Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert (Orchestra) deliver concertos from Baroque Masters – Vivaldi, Handel, Corelli, Charpentier, Telemann and more. It’s an era of classical Christmas music captured in all its glory.
“This is Christmas” – Katherine Jenkins
“Wexford Carol” is the highlight of the 14-track Christmas collection from much-loved Welsh soprano Katherine Jenkins. This is, in effect, her first ‘official’ festive album – not to be confused with the Decca compilation “My Christmas”. Katherine mixes traditional carols such as “Angels from the Realms of Glory” and “Deck the Halls” with more contemporary offerings like “Santa Baby” and “The Christmas Song” – and she sings a duet “Come What May” with the legendary Placido Domingo.
“Santo” – Juan Diego Florez
Much-heralded Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez sings a personal choice of sacred arias and songs for the festive season, including the title track composed by the man himself. Alongside such favourites as Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and Cesar Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” there are less familiar gems to celebrate in “Qui Sedes” from Bellini’s “Mass in A Minor” and “Alleluia” from Fux’s “Plaudite, Sonat Tuba”. To listen to this album is to understand why Florez is one of the world’s greatest opera stars.
“Christmas with the King’s Singers”
There are 21 tracks to enjoy on this 2017 release from the King’s Singers including “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, “The Wexford Carol” and “I Wonder as I Wander”. The King’s Singers were officially born in 1968, formed by six choral scholars from King’s College, Cambridge. The latest group of six singers is still charged by the same lifeblood as the original sextet – “one that wants to radiate the joy singing brings every day”.
“The Piano Guys – Christmas Together”
American musical group The Piano Guys, who gained popularity through YouTube before becoming best-selling classical artists, had a new Christmas album out in 2017. Among the tracks on the album are the clever combinations of different pieces, typical of this talented group: “O Holy Night/Ave Maria”, “Mary Did You Know/Corelli Christmas Concerto”, “Gloria/Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Little Drummer Boy/Do You Hear What I Hear”.
Also consider downloading:
“Christmas Concerto” – Corelli (Performed by the Academy of Ancient Music & Christopher Hogwood)
“Christmas Oratorio” – Bach (Fritz Lehmann, Berlin Mottetenchor & RIAS Kammerchor – 1955)
“The Nutcracker” – Tchaikovsky (Performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle)
“Sleigh Ride” – Prokofiev (Performed by the London Pops Orchestra)
“Fantasia on Christmas Carols” (arr. for baritone, choir, organ & string orchestra) – Ralph Vaughan Williams (Performed by Roderick Williams, Joyful Company of Singers, Joseph Cullen, Richard Hickox & City of London Sinfonia)
“L’Enfance Du Christ – The Shepherds’ Farewell” – Berlioz (Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra)
“Mille Cherubini in Coro” – Schubert (Performed by Renata Tebaldi)
“Gesu Bambino” – Pietro Yon (Performed by Luciano Pavarotti and the National Philharmonic Orchestra)
“What Child is This?” – Lyrics by William Chatterton Dix, set to the English tune “Greensleeves” (Performed by Joan Sutherland)
“Christus Natus Est: An Early English Christmas” (Performed by The Sixteen with Harry Christophers)
“Musical Sleigh Ride” – Leopold Mozart (From “Encores!” by Inso Lemberg and Gunhard Mattes)
“A Boy was Born, Op. 3: A Boy was Born (theme)” – Benjamin Britten (Performed by The Purcell Singers, Michael Hartnett & Benjamin Britten – Britten: A Ceremony of Carols)
“Christmas Cracker” (Performed by the RTE Concert Orchestra & Gavin Sutherland)
“Ave, Maris Stella” – Edvard Grieg (Performed by The Sixteen & Harry Christophers)
“Fairytale Sleigh Ride” (Performed by Royal Ballet Sinfonia & Gavin Sutherland)
“All This Time” – William Walton (Performed by the Bach Choir)
“Fantasy on Christmas Carols (The Holly & the Ivy)” – (Performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra)
“A Christmas Carol Symphony” – Victor Hely-Hutchinson (Performed by Gavin Sutherland & The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra)
“A Christmas Overture” (Performed by the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines & Captain J.R. Perkins)
“Santa Claus Symphony” – William Henry Fry (Performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra & Tony Rowe)
“Overture on French Carols” (Performed by BBC Concert Orchestra & Barry Wordsworth)
“Snow Ride” – Angela Morley
“A Christmas Overture” – Nigel Hess (wind band version perfomed by Nigel Hess and Central Band of the Royal Air Force)
“Box of Delights” (from the Carol Symphony) – The Cory Band
Elf Helper: A word on the great Gerald Finzi (1901-1956), who composed Dies Natalis in 1938-39. It is a five-movement solo cantata that works at Christmas and beyond. Finzi uses inspirational, mystical texts by 17th century poet and priest Thomas Traherne (1636-1674). Dies Natalis means “Natal Day” or “Day of Birth”. Finzi also composed “Carol” as part of his Five Bagatelles. The clarinet and piano combine to create a wistful air to the closing year. Finzi wrote this piece in December 1925 and it’s a setting for a poem of the same name from a collection by Ivor Gurney, who wrote so movingly about World War I. The opening line of the poem is “Winter now has bared the trees…” – seemingly a metaphor for loss and destruction in the Great War. This perhaps appealed to Finzi’s pacifist nature.