From Messiah to Jonas Kaufmann: the best classical Christmas albums of 2020

This year’s festive zingers take you from Berlin to Buckfast Abbey, from Mexico to Kaufmann in full-on crooner mode

Handel- Messiah

This year’s heap of Christmas albums is smaller, but the balance has shifted: plenty of novelty and baroque discovery from outstanding choirs, only one (in this selection) in the special seasonal celebrity-tinsel-cringe category. First up: a covetable new recording of Handel’s Messiah (Pentatone), the traditional Christmas work despite its Passiontide credentials, with spirited, lean performances from the Rias Kammerchor Berlin and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, conducted by Justin Doyle, with top soloists Julia Doyle, Tim Mead, Thomas Hobbs and Roderick Williams.

Alpha & O: Music for Advent and Christmas (Resonus) by the Choirs of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, director Edward Wickham, offers plainchant and contemporary works by Judith Weir, Hannah Kendall, Diana Burrell, Christopher Fox and more. The well-drilled combination of mixed and girls’ choirs makes a winning, ethereal combination.

Chanticleer Sings Christmas (Warner Classics)

For old carols made new, from plainchant to Away in a Manger to a medley written in 2017 by Rosephanye Powell, try Chanticleer Sings Christmas (Warner Classics), from the a cappella American male voice choir. Its folksy snow-scene cover hides a well-conceived programme, the choir just a dozen-strong but blended, clear, with a west coast zing.

If you prefer a more resonant, mystical sound, go for Ave Rex Angelorum (CRD) from the choir of Keble College, Oxford, recorded in Buckfast Abbey, Devon with its sonorous Ruffatti organ. The selection includes familiar carols with works by, among others, Britten, Richard Rodney Bennett and John Tavener.

Christmas in Puebla (Delphian) by the agile young ensemble Siglo de Oro conjures the lively, dance-infused spirit of a 17th-century Christmas in Mexico: all unfamiliar, and brilliantly done. Birds and bells of Oxfordshire feature on Songs from the Heart (Circlemusic), a debut by the vocal group Circle, built on a winter, rather than Christmas theme, with a traditional folk element running through. James Bowman’s many fans will be glad to hear the countertenor come out of retirement for a star appearance.

Jonas Kaufmann It’s Christmas!

And as you think you’ve OD’d on festive fare, there’s this: the world’s leading tenor Jonas Kaufmann, together with heavenly choir, thrumming harp, orchestra and big band, has released a double album of favourite Christmas songs from around the world. It’s his first. Scrooge might wish it his last. His slo-o-w Silent Night out-croons Ol’ Blue Eyes, and the squirm factor is high when he noodles right up in the whistle register in Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You.

But that voice, those vocal skills. Kaufmann’s not embarrassed, why should we be? He’s having himself a merry little Christmas (he sings that one too). There are sleigh bells and roasting chestnuts and snow on snow. If you’re more a Winterreise than a Winter Wonderland type, this one’s not for you. Be charitable. As it says on the box: It’s Christmas.

Watch the video for Jonas Kaufmann’s White Christmas


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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