Essential Listening: Christmas Edition - Jim Critcher
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Essential Listening: Christmas Edition

Essential Listening: Christmas Edition

Christmas albums. My affection for them go back to my childhood. My dad had an RCA Orthophonic “hi-fi” stereo – yes TWO speakers – in a huge mahogany cabinet. It was both a mystery and a source of delight, forbidden though it was to touch. Like the RCA doggie icon, I would spend hours lying on the floor between the speakers and reveling in the “stereophonic” sound.

After Thanksgiving, the Christmas LP’s emerged. The obligatory Bing Crosby. The translucent GREEN (so cool!) LP from some gas company. Choirs. The Chipmunk’s Christmas album. All in their beautiful 12 inch, LP jackets. The download generations will never know the pleasure or the beauty of LP covers. Art and liner notes to read and re-read while the music played, the first truly multimedia experience.

Over the years, the Christmas albums multiplied at my house, seemingly on their own between Decembers. At some point, I start wondering where this one came from and WHY in the world I have that one? (Did I really LIKE this?) But there are a few Christmas recordings I own that I eagerly look forward to each Advent and with the same anticipation I had as a child.

Occasionally, a recording emerges that absolutely arrests me with the reaction of “oh my God, WHO IS THAT?” This is indeed a musical anomaly with Christmas repertoire, believe me. It is a crowded and noisy field. But that ONE recording? The ONE that demands that you stop and listen? The ONE that produces a physical reaction? The ONE that makes you close your eyes so you can listen even more intently, shutting down all the other senses to heighten the aural one.

For me, that album is entitled Noel!: Choral Music for Christmas (Naxos label) with conductor David Hill and a choir known as Ikon. The mixed vocal settings of well-known and not so well-known Epiphany and Advent repertoire are majestic, crystalline and precise all at once. There are harmonies that are wonderfully complex yet accessible. There is also the grand English tradition of a boy’s choir. Each of these awakens my Episcopalian moorings, but the church of my youth, the Church of the Advent, never produced music as glorious as this. This album does not just entertain, it elevates. And shouldn’t that be the highest musical expression of the season?