Discography of medieval and Renaissance Christmas music

The following disks can be found in the classical room of any major record store (Tower, Virgin, etc.). Some can be found at public and/or University libraries, and most can be found at our house.

The Recordings

Altramar.  Nova Stella: a Medieval Italian Christmas.  (Dorian Discovery DIS-80142, 1996)
The Indiana University-based ensemble Altramar studies the literature, art and music of both East and West to create medieval  musical synergy.  In this album, they present their interpretation of music (about the Annunciation, the birth of Christ, and related miracles) that might have been performed at a Nativity tableau staged in 1223 by Francis of Assisi.  The original 13th-century notation was rhythmically ambiguous, so Altramar do some pieces in a free “chant” style, and others in complex rhythms inspired by Arabic musical tradition. Voices and medieval string instruments: harp, gittern, lute, vielle, and rebec.
Anonymous 4. On Yoolis Night. (HMU 907099)
This NYC women's vocal quartet (which "stopped touring" in 2004, then re-formed several times with one or two substitutions) is famous for their extraordinarily pure tone and blend. This album contains a variety of Englich chant and polyphony from the 12th - 15th centuries. Not the album to keep you awake on a long drive, but excellent for washing away the day's troubles.
Martin Best Ensemble. Thys Yool: A Medieval Christmas. (Nimbus 5137, 1988)
A sprightly blend of voices and instruments bring the Greatest Hits of the Middle Ages to life. The program is divided into several sections, including 'Winter and Wassail" and "Mary Mother, Queen of Heaven," which allows the ensemble to include some popular songs (such as Marian hymns from the Llibre Vermell, and a hearty drinking song or two) which might have otherwise been overlooked.
Boston Camerata. Noël, Noël! French Christmas Music 1200-1600. (Erato 2292-45420-2, 1990)
If you are sick of the holiday Muzak permeating the airwaves, then this recording will be a welcome change of pace. You might not recognize many of the songs, but they're all gems, presented with the Boston Camerata's customary elan. Gilding the Camerata's musical lily is the Boston Shawm and Sacbut Ensemble, because no holiday is complete without shawms....
La Capella Reial. Cant de la Sibil-la. (Astree/Auvidis E 8705)
For those interested in straying far from the old standards, these settings of Sibylline prophecy were traditionally performed at the Christmas Eve mass in medieval Catalonia. Deliciously dark.
Chanticleer. Psallite! A Renaissance Christmas. (CR-8806, 1991)
The venerable Californian all-men's choir provides a satisfying sampler of Renaissance "hits" (such as "Riu Riu Chiu" and "Psallite Unigenito" ) and "dusties" (such as "O Admirabile Commercium"). The only wrong note was Perotin's twelfth-century organum "Benedicamus Domino," which broke the momentum in an otherwise all-fifteenth- and sixteenth-century program. Chanticleer has a rich sound which can be both full-bodied and delicate; their countertenor section is especially praiseworthy for its purity and lack of blowsy "bargain-countertenor" hootiness.
Andrew Lawrence-King. Weihnachtliche Harfenmusik: the Harp at Christmastide. (Ambitus amb 97 812, 1986)
The world’s foremost early-harp player interprets a variety of Christmas carols (e.g. "Es Ist Ein Rose Entsprungen" and "In Dulci Jubilo"), mostly sixteenth-century German plus a few Bach favorites, on reconstructed medieval, renaissance, and baroque harps. This instrumental album makes ideal background music for holiday parties, or for decompressing at home.
Lionheart. Tydings Trew (Koch KIC CD 7562, 2003)
With their impeccable phrasing and soft-focus vocal stylings, Lionheart can sometimes seem like an all-male analogue of Anonymous 4, but they have a musical sensibility all their own. The chants are sensitively rendered, but their polyphonic carols also shine.
Maddy Prior with the Carnival Band. A Tapestry of Carols. (Saydisc CD-SDL-366, 1987)
Or “A Very Steeleye Christmas.”   The Carnival Band uses more period instrumentation, and fewer electrified instruments, than Steeleye Span, but the rollicking arrangements, and Ms. Pryor’s unmistakable vocal stylings, will invite comparisons with the aforementioned Brit folk-rockers.
Mediæval Bæbes. Salva Nos. (Virgin 0 6700 301412 20, 1997)
Unlike Anonymous 4, these ladies use a very nasalized Balkan-style vocal placement, and a variety of period instruments such as recorders and hammer dulcimer. The Bæbes also differ from Anonymous 4 in their laissez-faire approach to historical accuracy. Several songs on this recording have medieval lyrics with melodies composed by one of the group members, but there’s a higher proportion of period songs here than on other Bæbes recordings.
Mediæval Bæbes. Mistletoe and Wine. (Nettwerk 0-6700-30329-2, 2003)
Goth-flavored holiday music dominates this disc, a compilation of selections from earlier recordings (plus two previously unreleased songs). The Bæbes made some puzzling repertoire choices (including the springy "L'Amour de Moi," but not "Adam Lay Y-Bounden" or "Veni Emanuel"), but it does include a number of medieval Christmas songs.
New York Ensemble for Early Music. Nova: a Medieval Christmas. (Ex Cathedra EC-9001 70070-29001-2)
A survey of Christmas music from 200 years and several countries. Worthy of note is countertenor Marshall Coid, whose voice is light and supple, without the hooty "bargain-countertenor" quality that sets this reviewer's teeth on edge. The recording has a nice balance of unaccompanied vocal pieces and instrumental ones, and also balances the obscure bits (e.g. "Rex Virginum Amator") with more widely-known songs (e.g. "Orientis Partibus," known in the SCA as "Oriental Party Bus").
New York Ensemble for Early Music. Bohemian Christmas. (Ex Cathedra EC 9007/70070-29007-2, 2005)
Released in conjunction with the Met's Prague exhibit, this recording features 14th- and 15th century music with a Bohemian connection, such as songs from the late medieval Codex Specialnik, and La Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut (who worked for, among others, John, King of Bohemia).
New York Pro Musica. English Medieval Christmas Caorls. (Tradition TCD 1056, 1956, reissued on CD 1997)
The late Noah Greenberg's ensemble was one of the pioneering groups in the twentieth-century Early Music revival; although many of their recordings sound dated now, this one has aged reasonably well (unaccompanied vocal performances generally do). The singers use more vibrato than current performance practice recommends, but it doesn't overpower the text -- and countertenor Russell Oberlin's voice is a thing of beauty. As a listening exercise, compare this recording to ...
the Oxford Camerata. Medieval Carols. (Naxos 8.550751, 1993)
which includes many of the same songs.
Sequentia. Shining Light: Music from Aquitanian Monasteries (DHM 05472 773702)
The oldest extant Western polyphony is the 12th-century Aquitanian repertoire referred to as the "School of St. Martial de Limoges." Sequentia, under the leadership of Benjamin Bagby and the late Barbara Thornton, present this music with their typical combination of meticulous scholarship and thoughtful performance. The pieces are tied together by the theme of light, and performed variously by men’s voices, women’s voices, and medieval strings.  The crystalline precision of the voices as they soar through voluptuous melismas and linger over suspensions is a spinetingling delight. Savor it on a moonlit snowy evening....
Sinfonye. Gabriel's Greeting. (Hyperion CDA66685)
A "rambunctious" interpretation, with fiddles, hurdy-gurdies, and a Balkanesque singing style. An acquired taste, with a refreshing pungency.
Various artists. A Celebration of Christmas: Nova Cantica: Medieval and Traditional Carols, Chansons, and Festive Dances from the 13th to 17th Centuries. (Healing Muses Recordings HM 0703, 2003, 1993)
A new sleeper favorite recently discovered at CDBaby.com. These performers from the Bay Area turn in a clean, crisp minimalist performance, with exquisitely-rendered interpretations of German favorites like "In Dulci Jubilo" and "Joseph Lieber, Joseph Mein" and several New Year's Day chansons by Dufay. The section of Elizabethan/Jacobean dances sounds just right with their consort of one recorder/flute, two vielles/viols, and one lute. The squarely-Baroque "Ermuntre Dich" (1696) sounded an incongruous note, but it came at the end, and could be considered a chronological coda.
The York Waits. Old Christmas Return'd. (Saydisc CD-SDL 398)
13th-16th century songs, with a few "traditional" items, played on soft instruments and loud. And who wouldn't want to be serenaded by shawms at Christmas, right?
The York Waits and Deborah Catterall. Christmas Musicke 1400-1800. (Brewhouse Music BHCD9607, 1996)
About half of the tracks on this album are “Olde English” Christmas carols, like “I saw three ships come sailing in” and “Ding dong merrily on high”; there are also French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Spanish pieces. Performed variously on voice, flute, recorder, crumhorn, bagpipe, hurdy-gurdy, cornett, sackbut, and shawm.
The York Waits and Deborah Catterall. Yule Riding: Music for the Twelve Days. (Beautiful Jo BEJOCD-46, 2004)
Loud Band fans rejoice: this venerable British early wind ensemble has released a third holiday recording, this time celebrating the Yule Riding, a Yorkist celebration of the arrival of Christmas on Dec. 21 in which even the city's lowlifes were welcome to stay. Loud, rowdy fun.

Last modified: Tue Dec 9 11:24:59 EST 2008
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