Advent, is a rich time for music. There's plenty of liturgy, a wealth of texts and historic tunes, and many different cultural influences to provide variety. Yet it's easy to sink into the same familiar carols, and overlook a wealth of enriching alternatives.
With this in mind, I've curated some suggestions of seasonal music to explore this advent. My list grew to thirteen, and as I wanted to say a little about each piece, as well as recommend a recording, I've decided to split this in two. So here are the first six recommendations.
1) Ralph Vaughan Williams - Fantasia on Christmas Carols
Vaughan Williams was tremendously enthusiastic about Christmas. He collected carols throughout England, either transcribing them by hand, or using a phonograph. He wrote four superb works, all of which are worthy of investigation. In chronological order, they are 'Fantasia on Christmas Carols' (1912), 'On Christmas Night' (1926), a ballet, inspired by 'A Christmas Carol', Hodie (1953), and The First Nowell (1958).
The Fantasia is exquisite. Beginning with a rich cello solo, followed by baritone solo, orchestra and choir take us on a tour through a collection of carols and themes, evoking wintry pastoral scenes. This is one of the first pieces I want to hear, at this time of year.
Recommended recording: Richard Hickox with Stephen Roberts, the LSO, and LSO Chorus.
2) Victor Hely-Hutchinson ‘Carol Symphony’
Victor Hely-Hutchinson was professor of music at Birmingham University, before becoming director of music at the BBC until his death in 1947.
His 1929 "Carol Symphony" is set of four orchestral preludes based on material from five hymns - O Come All Ye Faithful, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Coventry Carol, briefly, The First Nowell, and Here We Come A-wassailing.
It's delightful to listen to, and deserves to be much better known.
Recommended recording: Gavin Sutherland, with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, on Naxos.
3) Bach Xmas Oratorio
This is perhaps a rather obvious recommendation, but it's so wonderful, it would be terribly remiss of me to overlook it. In the tradition of Handel, it tells the story of Christmas through six cantatas. Beautiful and engaging.
Recommended recording:John Eliot Gardner, with the English Baroque Soloists, on Archiv.
4) Christmas with Solid Brass
I'm surrounded by brass, in my family. I grew up playing cornet, my grandfather played in a band, my father-in-law is a tremendous brass enthusiast, and my two sons play percussion and trombone in a brass band. So, when someone mentioned this, I had to check it out. It's a straightforward set of fourteen seasonal tunes, arranged for brass and percussion. It's a new one for me, but my initial response was positive, so I commend it to your attention.
Recommended recording: Dorian Recordings, 1988
5) A Ceremony of Carols - Britten
As Benjamin Britten crossed the Atlantic in 1942, aboard a Swedish cargo ship, he wrote his cantata 'A Ceremony of Carols'. Drawing on a collection of poems, mostly in middle English, from Gerald Bullet's collection 'The English Galaxy', it's scored for three part choir, with harp accompaniment.
I happen to think Britten's choral compositions are particularly exceptional, so I'm delighted to be able to provide on in this list of recommendations.
Recommended recording: The Sixteen, Harry Christophers, on Coro
6) Penderecki Symphony 2
This is a short, and engaging symphonic work by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. First performed in 1981 at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, it feels decidedly romantic, rather than modern. I detected homages to Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner, and Sibelius, although in places I certainly sensed Shostakovich idioms.
The symphony is sometimes labeled 'Christmas' on account of the repeated 'silent night' motif which it features, although this is nowhere mentioned in the score.
Very definitely worth a listen.
Recommended recording: Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, on EMI Classics