Two modern Christmas classics

We’ll get to “Messiah” presently, but first, in a sub-chapter of our series on unjustly neglected music, a couple of modern Christmas works that aren’t heard too often, and really ought to be. (Links are to recordings, with their record labels in parentheses.)

Ottorino Respighi: “Lauda per la Natività del Signore.” This Christmas cantata (“Laud for the Nativity of the Lord”) is Respighi’s only sacred work, a tantalizing hint of how he might have treated other liturgical forms and religious themes. (We make do with hymns and chants quoted in his instrumental works.) When the “Lauda” was introduced in 1930, he had recently completed “Trittico Botticelliano” and “The Birds,” and was in the midst of producing his “Ancient Airs Dances” suites; so this is peak Respighi as master of orchestration and sensibility in adapting antique melodies.

From one of my favorite Christmas discs – a 2015 release that also includes Francis Poulenc’s “Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël,” Morten Lauridsen’s “O magnum mysterium” and modern settings of traditional carols – Māris Sirmais conducts the Respighi with soprano Yeree Suh, mezzo-soprano Kristine Larissa Funkhauser, tenor Krystian Adam, the Rundfunkchor Berlin and Polyphonia Ensemble Berlin (Carus):

Ralph Vaughan Williams: “Hodie (This Day).” Another Christmas cantata, much grander in scale and more extroverted in spirit. Vaughan Williams, whose 150th birth anniversary is being marked this year, wrote “Hodie” in 1953-54 and introduced it at Britain’s Three Choirs Festival. As composers tend to do in choral-festival pieces, he super-sized performing forces: three vocal soloists, multiple choirs, big orchestra with lots of brass and percussion. An uninhibitedly celebratory echo of pomp-and-circumstance Edwardian England, to be sure; but “Hodie” also incorporates this composer’s pastoral and impressionistic modes of expression. It’s full of what people who like Vaughan Williams like about Vaughan Williams.

The first and still best recording, from 1965, with David Willcocks conducting mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, tenor Richard Lewis, baritone John Shirley-Quirk, organist Philip Ledger, The Bach Choir and Choristers of Westminster Abbey, and the London Symphony Orchestra (EMI/Warner Classics):

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