First on my list of must play music comes from a singer whose voice is so imprinted on my childhood memories that at first hearing, I'm immediately transported back to that happy time. My mother loved Christmas music and I remember evenings spent listing to Nat King Cole, Englebert Humperdink, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin croon the Christmas standards.
Being a particular fan of Dean Martin, Christmas with Dino is one of my faves. Featuring holiday cuts from the Capitol Records album A Winter Romance and selections from The Dean Martin Christmas Album on Reprise Records, this album is quintessential Dean.
For the more classical side, I have two favorites that - truth be told - I also listen to throughout the year.
First, in 1991 soprano Jessye Norman sang a concert with Lawrence Foster conducting the Lyon Opera Orchestra at Paris's Notre Dame cathedral. Recorded live at that event, Jessye Norman At Notre Dame includes some fantastic holiday fare. David Reynolds in American Record Guide noted of her performance of Gounod's Ave Maria in this concert: "Because it is so humble, it is far more moving ... beyond reproach." One of my favorite tracks on this album is Bizet's Agnus Dei. Taken from the L'arlésienne Suite, Bizet's musics as sung by Jessye Norman with the Notre Dame pipe organ accompanying her is not for the faint hearted.
Now Friends, I must confess that not a single holiday season goes by without this disc taking a spin or 10 in the old CD player. In 1976 Luciano Pavarotti recorded O Holy Night, a wonderful album of sacred holiday classics. Now, you might ask yourself what on earth Orfeo's lament from Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice is doing on a recording called O Holy Night - and, Yours Truly is just as befuddled as you are.
The title song is so beyond amazing that you'd feel justified if you bought the album just for that. Pavarotti's voice ringings with it's hallmark clarity and beauty - after all, this was during his prime. Just when you think it can't get any better, he moves us with Rossini's Stabat Mater - complete with its ascent to high D flat near the end.
Having spent my college years singing the Christmas Festival Concerts with the Whitworth University Choir - I must admit that I am a sucker for albums such as my next pick. Ever since those years of processionals down the aisle of the cathedral in my tuxedo and socks (as not to make noise on the cathedral's floors, of course) nothing quite announces the holiday season like a choir, brass, percussion and pipe organ.
If your ears yearn for an album which includes some great choir tunes that bring to mind pomp, circumstance, fanfare and grand processionals - here's the pick for you. Recorded live in 2009, Christmas with The Washington Chorus is a montage of traditional carols and other holiday favorites that is sure to make you smile. The album opens with a sprightly yet triumphant Angels We Have Heard on High as arranged by the Music Director of The Washington Chorus, Julian Wachner. Now I'm not going to lie to you Friendlies, Mr. Wachner knows how to craft a great fanfare and his arrangements of Joy to the World and The First Nowell prove this beyond a reasonable doubt.
Alright - I love a good fanfare but, there are times when you have to take it down a notch. You know what I mean: with the bombastic horn blowing, drum beating and organ blasting you also have to bring the calm reflectiveness, too. Still, Still, Still, Nino Lindo and Choral Fanfare: Gloria provide this recording with much needed musical reflectiveness. The culmination of this album comes in the form of a very stirringly expressive and magnificent piece by Glenn Rudolph called The Dream Isaiah Saw. Some people call it 'goosebumps' - I call it 'chicken skin' ... whatever you call it, you'll have it. This text from the piece truly sums up what this holiday season means to so many:
I'm buying what this recording is selling and I want to gift wrap it and put it under your tree. It's got it all: a fine choir, brass, percussion (National Capital Brass & Percussion, mind you), pipe organ ... and of course, holiday pomp and fanfare!
Little child whose bed is straw,
take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
justice purifying law.
So there you have it. A few picks that will surely bring some great music to what I hope is a purely joyful holiday season for you and yours!