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Bleak Midwinter by Barnaby Bright: Of all of the Christmas songs on the verge of being recorded too many times, “In the Bleak Midwinter”—lyrics by Christina Rossetti, music by either Gustav Holst or Harold Darke—is surely the most durable, holding up under both high-art and folk-art conditions. Nathan and Becky Bliss, aka Barnaby Bright, have opted for the latter (and for Holst’s tune), giving the carol an eerie yet reverent sheen that falls within the parameters of their Bandcamp tags (“Americana,” “indie folk”). They’ve also opted to focus in one of their covers and at least two of their originals on a topic especially relevant during these COVID-19 times: the sadness of having to spend Christmas apart from the ones you love.
Benjamin Britten: Sacred Choral Works by Choir of Norwich Cathedral, Ashley Grote: Several new recordings of Benjamin Britten’s choral suite A Ceremony of Carols have appeared this year, all of them good, each distinguished mainly, if at all, by their microphone placement and the acoustics of their respective venues. This album also includes the cantata Rejoice in the Lamb, Britten’s setting of excerpts from Jubilate Agno, an ecstatically eccentric 18th-century poem of praise composed by Christopher Smart during his incarceration for insanity. As adapted by Britten, Smart’s verse demands an uncommon sensitivity to a wide range of dynamics. It’s a sensitivity that the Norwich Cathedral Choir’s 20 boy choristers possess in spades.
A Drummer Boy Christmas by For King & Country: The Smallbone brothers have hit upon a formula for making an all-sacred rock Christmas album that doesn’t feel misbegotten: take seven carols capable of handling U2-lite levels of guitar, bass, and drums, throw in a few generation-gap-bridging originals (making sure that at least one is as good as “The Carol of Joseph,” a long-overdue answer song to “Mary, Did You Know?”), throw in a monologue making clear the reason for the season (two if you count the recitation in “Won’t You Come”), and play and sing as if what you’re creating might be the only Christmas music that millennials will ever hear. Given the West’s rapidly increasing secularization, it just might be.
Johann Pachelbel: Magnificat by Himlische Cantorey, Jan Kobow: Even without the booklet’s English translations, the piety emerging from these sacred works by the Baroque composer best known for his Canon in D comes through. It’s clear, in other words, from the vigor and rigor of the singing and playing that something transcendent is afoot. Of Pachelbel’s many compositions based on Luke 1:46-55, this album contains four, all sung in Latin, beginning with the triumphant 19-minute Magnificat in C PWV 1502 and concluding with the equally triumphant 12-minute Magnificat in C PWV 1504. Together they create an intensely reverent atmosphere that the two German pieces (one penitential, one consoling) and the three-movement (Latin) Mass only enhance.
Another excellent new recording of Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols can be found on Britten: Saint Nicolas, A Ceremony of Carols (Signum Classics) by the Crouch End Festival Chorus and BBC Concert Orchestra under the direction of David Temple. As recorded in what Temple describes as the “crystal clear acoustic of All Saints’ Church in East Finley,” the enunciation of the 40 amateur Crouch End voices is captured especially well.
But what makes the album essential Christmas listening is Saint Nicolas—performed in the equally friendly confines of a restored north London theater—by the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Coldfall Primary School Choir, the Hannah Brine Choirs, and the operatic tenor Mark Le Brocq. With a text by Eric Crozier highlighting the heroic Christian sanctity of the real-life fourth-century-A.D. bishop of Myra, the cantata separates man from myth. Frankly, it makes the former seem the more exciting of the two. —A.O.