by Leslie Mickelson

During recorded music’s golden age, every Christmas season produced dozens of new recordings of holiday vocal music from favorite singers.  After the introduction of the CD, holiday music was still an important part of classical catalogs as the major labels rushed to reissue LP’s in the new format.  New Christmas recitals, however, began to appear less frequently through the 1990s and into the new century.

The appearance  of a new recital of holiday material from a major label is now a rare event.  2006 saw an excellent recital from Anne Sofie von Otter (her second holiday recording) on DGG and 2007 has seen a new Sony issue from Angelika Kirchschlager.  DGG also has, over the past several years, gathered material from its vast Christmas archive and released two double CD sets in its Original Masters series.  There is much to enjoy here.  Get them while they’re still available!

I have been an avid collector of Christmas music for almost five decades.  My collection began with the annual holiday LP’s issued by Firestone (produced by RCA) and by Goodyear (produced by Columbia).  These LP’s sold for $1.00 and featured performances by Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, Anna Moffo and many others.  Some of these selections have appeared on CD in various collections.  Sadly, however, they have never been issued in their initial program format and good copies of the original record issues are difficult to come by.  In the light of all this bad news what’s an avid collector of holiday music to do?  Look backward and relish the treasures of yesteryear of course!
Here is an informal list of some of my holiday favorites.  Many of my choices will be familiar- favorite holiday music performed by beloved artists.  Some of my choices are surprising.  Finding an unusual holiday song or aria is one of the pleasures of collecting.  All of my choices pre-date the compact disc era.

*Adeste Fidelis
John McCormack
This is my favorite pre-electric holiday recording.  McCormack is accompanied by the Trinity Choir, whose tenor section includes a young Richard Crooks.  The recorded sound is remarkably vivid. 
*Handel- O Thou That Tellest (Messiah)
Louise Homer
This is another favorite acoustical recording.  Old fashioned Handel style-Glorious singing.
*Adolphe Adam-  Cantique de Noel
Georges Thill
The finest recording of this favorite.  This ‘melodie’ has been recorded hundreds of times but never better than this.  To nitpick- someone should have done something about an anonymous, bleating soprano in the first chorus but even she can’t spoil this glorious effort. (see soundbites also)
*Xavier Leroux-  Les Cadeaux de Noel- Air du Petit Pierre
Mathilde Saiman

This is an ancient, creator recording from an opera with a holiday message.  This work, with its passionate pleas for peace, debuted in Paris in 1915.

*Stephen Adams- The Star of Bethlehem
Richard Crooks
Crooks recorded this Victorian ballad twice.  The first, for Victor, is an acoustical recording from 1925 and the second is an HMV recording from 1933, with Sir John Barbirolli conducting.  The second version (actually more difficult to find) is my favorite.  The great American tenor is in brilliant voice and the recorded sound is superior.  This is one of the great holiday recordings.  Crooks is unequalled as an interpreter of this very sentimental ballad.  If I were exiled to a Christmas desert island with only two recordings the Thill/Adam Noel and the Crooks/Adams Star of Bethlehem would be in my hands.
*Leon Boellmann- Noel- Le Ciel a resplendi
Lionel Daunais
In his short life Boellmann achieved great fame as an organist and as a composer of organ music.  He also left a handful of melodies for voice and piano.  This Noel, sung by the Canadian baritone Lionel Daunais, is one of these songs.  This recording has been a favorite of mine for many, many years.  My original recording, a 78 on the Star label was broken during my college days.  My thanks to Bruno Laplante for providing me with a copy of this recording taken from a multi-disc CD tribute to Lionel Daunais on the now defunct Fonovox label.
*Augusta Holmes- Noel- Trois anges sont venus ce soir
I confess!  I collect recordings of this Holmes/Noel like others collect recordings of Traviata or Boheme.  I couldn’t pick just one favorite.  Here are three-
*Ninon Vallin :  Did she ever make a bad recording?  This recording is surprisingly hard to find in LP or CD collections.   I believe the only current CD issue is included in a Vallin recital on the Malibran label.
*Janine Micheau : This is, for me, one of Micheau’s best recordings and is, again, quite difficult to find.  The shrillness which could be evident in some of her work is absent in this simple melodie- lovely indeed.  Again, to my knowledge the only readily available version is on the Malibran label.
*Mado Robin:  Without pyrotechnics and interpolated high notes Robin’s voice has a child-like innocence-  another favorite version.

All of the above favorites, with the possible exception of the Leroux, have been reissued over the years in various LP and CD collections and most can be found through computer searches, second-hand shopping and Ebay browsing.

My last choice however, is something of a rarity and is  difficult to find-
Christmas Songs
Jane Wilson

Jane Wilson began her career with Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians.  She was a successful Broadway and radio artist.  In the 1940s she appeared in several American Decca abridged operetta recordings.  The most notable was The Student Prince with Lauritz Melchior.  Her 1952 Christmas recital, again from Decca, is a hidden gem.  This imaginative Christmas recital features Christmas music from three centuries in three languages.  There isn’t a warhorse or a Christmas chestnut to be found.  Among the eighteen selections, A Fifteenth Century Christmas Carol(There is no rose) arranged by Bax,  Massenet’s Noel des Fleurs and Ravel’s Noel de Jouets are outstanding.  Wilson is ably accompanied by George Trovillo.  Decca Gold Label pressings were uniformly terrible and this one is no exception.  Singers of greater reputation and more beautiful voice should take note of this unique and interesting recital.  If you happen upon a copy of this one, buy it.

The above list is just a small sampling of favorites.  I have dear friends and family who browse through stacks of old records looking for music to add to my collection.  My heartfelt thanks to Rudi van den Bulck whose
thoughtfulness and efforts have added the voices of Huc Santana, Jo Vincent, Wilhelm Strienz and so many others to my holiday collection.
 As I have written these paragraphs, I’ve listened to Olaf Bar’s wonderful Christmas recital- Weihnachten Im Deutschen Lied and to the complete Weihnachtslieder of Engelbert Humperdinck from a new issue of his complete lieder for voice and piano.  These simple, yet beautiful melodies make Rudolf the Red-Nosed, Blue Christmas and Grandma getting run over by a reindeer seem but distant memories.

Happy holiday listening to all!