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In Tavener Towers we have a rather strict tradition when it comes to playing CDs for the festive season. Having listened to all of these, however, some new ones are definitely in contention this year, in particular those that look beyond our national boundaries. Riemuitkaame! a Finnish Christmas from the 16 professionals of the Finnish Chamber Choir is a charming programme of Finnish and foreign works: Sibelius (of course), J.S. Bach, Berlioz (‘The Shepherds’ Farewell’ in Finnish!), Tchaikovsky, Rautavaara and more, plus traditional melodies in warm arrangements, lovingly sung. Choir and organ glow in the gorgeous sound of this SACD recording.

Cantique de Noël – French Music for Christmas [Delphian DCD 34197] finds the Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge in a menu of Adam, Berlioz, Fauré, Gounod, Guilmant, Massenet and more, with accompanied items using the French-style organ at Exeter College, Oxford. Fervent, engaging, heart on sleeve interpretations in excellently immediate recorded sound – vraiment superbe!

If your taste runs to German baroque and you want to give Schütz and J.S. Bach a rest, here are two to consider: Johann Schelle’s cantatas in Actus Musicus auf Weyh-Nachten from Kölner Akademie, and Carl Heinrich Graun’s Weihnachtsoratorium from the Arcis-Vocalisten München. Accomplished performances bring Schelle’s rare stuff from c.1680 to festive life with sprightly voices supported by the brass of Concerto Palatino. A generation later, the equally obscure Graun shines with inventive choruses, graceful solo numbers and colourful orchestration in 80 magical minutes of elegant celebration.

The Sistine Chapel Choir present Veni Domine, Advent and Christmas music from the Vatican Library collection. Gregorian chant, Palestrina, Victoria, Allegri et al are recorded in that most evocative sacred space. Alas, an almost risibly ill-tempered performance, cheesy and queasy with excessive hairpins, is redeemed only partially by a guest appearance from Cecilia Bartoli, singing part of Perotin’s Beata viscera with extraordinary grace.

Back home and A Vaughan Williams Christmas, with efficient, direct, shapely, coolly Anglican singing from the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. In a feast of traditional tunes, alongside material from the Oxford Book of Carols and his Eight Traditional English Carols (1919), here are world premiere recordings of Two Carols (1945) and the complete Nine Carols for male voices (1941) in atmospheric performances.

In Winter’s Arms – Seasonal Music by Bob Chilcott the large American amateur choir Choralis, with occasional organ, brass, harp, timpani and youth choir, as required, romps through his Gloria. The main work is the substantial cantata Wenceslas – vibrant, inventive, approachable music, and the almost palpable enjoyment of the choir makes occasional glitches forgivable.

John Rutter pops up with many another usual suspect in O Holy Night – A Merton Christmas, which pairs the Choir of Merton College, Oxford, with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra. This is a lavish mille-feuille of seasonal sweetness, expertly constructed by director Benjamin Nicholas who has chosen his ‘favourite popular carols’. For lighter sweetmeats turn to recorder player John Turner’s Christmas pieces: here they are in Christmas Card Carols sung with relish and delicacy by the consort Intimate Voices. It’s well crafted, schmaltz-free easy listening.

The colourful voices of the Choir of the Church of the Epiphany, Washington, DC encapsulate the spirit of their seasonal concerts and liturgies in a double CD, Advent . Christmas . Epiphany. New works rub shoulders affectionately with traditional favourites in a wide-ranging selection of largely 20th- and 21st-century material. A boomy recording notwithstanding, tenderness abounds and there are delightful discoveries to be made in works by contemporary composers including Paul Trepte, Will Todd, Francis Pott and the deeply thoughtful Epiphany Carol by Alex L’Estrange.

REBECCA TAVENER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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