A Time For Carols: Some Of My Favorite Collections

One of my December traditions is to listen to Christmas carols.  They have always been a major part of my life, and have brought me joy and solace.  My sister  Nancy once founded a group, The Dolcian Singers, which specialized in carols, and I remember singing carols in our home.  Going to Yosemite during Christmas and singing carols in the Ahwahnee Hotel before a large crackling fire, is something I’ll never forget.  The outside falling snow, the magnificent peaks and falls, and the wonderful joy of everyone, made my trip one I will always cherish.  I’ve decided to share with you some of my favorite carol collections, giving tribute to a tradition that has inspired composers since the Middle Ages.

1.  My favorite, and the one I play first is Harry Belafonte’s, To Wish You A Merry Christmas.  My Dad had been an admirer of Belafonte’s vocal style, and never failed to purchase a new album.  However, when Dad bought this album in the 1960s, it became a tradition to play it every December.  Belafonte’s warm, soothing, rich voice is ideal for carols.  If you want to sit back and relax, and absorb the spirit of Christmas, this collection is for you.  The orchestration is excellent, and the conductor, Robert DeCormier(who has several carol CDs on Arabesque Records) has great insight into the mood of the carols.  One of the highlights is Belafonte’s interpretation of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, which concludes the album.  A wonderful, and thought-provoking piece of music it is!

2.  My second choice would be the 2CD collection:  Christmas with the Robert Shaw Chorale on RCA.  Acknowledged by many music critics to be one of the greatest choral conductors in America, Shaw brings out the very best in his ensemble.  Included in the extensive liner notes is an interview of Robert Shaw, conducted by Vocal Music Editor of the BMG Classical Music Series.  This bounteous collection contains almost 50 carols, mostly traditional, but there are some surprises as well.  A great way to celebrate the Christmas season.

3.  A New Met Christmas is a splendid way to celebrate the holiday season.  Outstanding singers from the Met’s past are featured in this inspiring collection.  My favorites include Benita Valente’s wistful “Silent Night”, and Placido Domingo’s moving rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.  However, all selections are exceptional, and the CD is a treasure.

4.  A Scandinavian Christmas on Loft Recordings is a different undertaking altogether.  There is a quiet beauty in abundance, but little of the rousing, joyous spirit we associate with many traditional carols.  With David Dahl at the organ, director Richard Sparks encourages some lush, rich sounds out of the Choral Arts Northwest ensemble.  Many of the melodies are complex, haunting, and mysterious in their makeup, like parts of the Scandinavian landscape.  Definitely not a CD for traditionalists, but for those wishing to expand their horizons, this CD might provide an answer.

5.  Christmas Carols:  Austria, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, England, Flanders, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Yugoslavia on Supraphon provides a collection of carols from selected European countries on one side(I have an LP), and Czech carols on the other side.  The Prague Madrigal Singers due justice to all the selections, and their conductor Miroslav Venhoda is a capable guide.  Notes are in English, Russian, German, and French.  There are a few traditional carols, but most of them the listener will probably not be familiar with.  A wonderful presentation of European carols, and the dance, folk character of Czech carols.

“On The Twelfth Day Of Christmas, Although It May Seem Strange.”: A Holiday Tradition

One of my holiday traditions is to listen to the following:  “On the twelfth day of Christmas, although it may seem strange.  On the twelfth day of Christmas, I’m going to exchange…”  So sings Allan Sherman on his album, For Swingin’ Livers Only!  In a contemporary satire on the carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas, Sherman enumerates the silly and trivial gifts he has received, including “green polka dot pajamas”, “a calendar book with the name of my insurance man”, “an indoor plastic birdbath”, etc.  The carol has been the subject of numerous satires.   Willard Espy provides one of the best in his Words At Play, In this satire, the writer imagines how a lady would react if she really did receive all the gifts listed in The Twelve Days of Christmas.  The conclusion is most amusing.  Just a note:  the Victorians were fond of number games and it’s interesting that the number of fowl in the carol equals the number of musicians, 23.  I wonder…