From wassails to Wexford: the best classical Christmas albums of 2021

As surely as the first cuckoo arrives in spring, so the first festive CD lands around mid-August. By usual standards this year’s Christmas heap is small, but quality is high. The collegiate choir offerings, thwarted by not being able to practise in lockdown, are mostly absent. An exception is those Nine Lessons and Carols stalwarts, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, directed by Daniel Hyde. Their In the Bleak Midwinter has a particular distinction: for once, the men and boys sing in a resonant empty chapel, without the acoustic muffle of a congregation. Grandeur is achieved by the organ, played by Matthew Martin. This is the choice for anyone who wants carols they recognise. A strong alternative is the recently formed adult Belfast Cathedral Choir in their debut album for Resonus, A Belfast Christmas: first-class singing, conducted by Matthew Owens, in choices by Philip Ledger, John Rutter, Elizabeth Poston and others. In addition, Owens has recorded Christmas Bells: Organ Music from Belfast Cathedral.

The Sixteen’s Carol of the Bells matches the group’s usual impeccable standards under its director, Harry Christophers, who has devised a clever recipe of music that sounds warmly festive but shuns the obvious. With five traditional carols interspersed (Wassail Song, All in the Morning), the disc opens and closes with Pilgrim Jesus and Advent Antiphons by one of the UK’s best living choral composers, Bob Chilcott. Other tracks from this largely contemporary collection include the popular title piece, Carol of the Bells (as heard in the film Home Alone), by Mykola Leontovych, Eric Whitacre’s Lux aurumque and Cecilia McDowall’s Of a Rose.

The immediate, vigorous energy of Apollo5, part of the Voces8 Foundation, shines out in their eclectic A Deep But Dazzling Darkness, with music from William Byrd to William Walton, Herbert Howells and Dobrinka Tabakova: expert singing, unexpected choices, with some subtle arrangements made specially for this intimate ensemble. An Elizabethan Christmas by the viol consort Fretwork, with mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston, is a quietly joyous exploration of domestic music from the time of Elizabeth I and James I, by Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Weelkes and more.

Love Came Down at Christmas features treble duets by Myron and Archie, the teenagers’ second album: unusual arrangements, wonderfully sung, in aid of an important cause, childhood cancer. Strange Wonders: The Wexford Carols Vol II is a follow-up to singer-arranger Caitríona O’Leary’s highly successful 2014 album of Irish music, performed by a top lineup including vocal group Stile Antico, trumpeter Alison Balsom and folk fiddler and singer Seth Lakeman.

Like This, by the small folk-choral collective Circle, escapes into its own special soundworld via traditions ancient and modern, featuring the Senegalese kora player Kadialy Kouyate and a guest appearance from the countertenor James Bowman. The six versatile singers also play cornett, nyckelharpa, recorder, percussion and keyboards. This album’s abiding mood, which many of us may welcome at this time of year, is serenity.