Five (mostly) Classical Music Pieces to Put You in the Holiday Spirit

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It’s mid-December  and the Christmas carols have been playing on the radio for what, three weeks already? If you’re like me, you’ve reached the saturation point, and you just Can’t.Take.It.Anymore! Mariah - we love you, but we are done!

Contrary to what you hear non-stop on the radio, there are more than a few alternatives that you can play to cure the monotony of holiday music. For the last few years, I’ve been curating the music and wine for a program called HollyTales with our friends at V Wine Room in West Hollywood and every year, I’m once again overwhelmed by the sheer volume of beautiful musical selections out there that aren’t straight-up Christmas carols but are perfect for the Holidays.

Here are six options to get you through the next few weeks. Yes, most of them are of the classical ilk (no, I said ilk, not ick) but, think about it: most of our favorite Christmas carols are actually tunes from long ago anyway that have been co-opted by the pop and jazz voices we love so much. So take the plunge and dive in! NB: some suggestions here are longer than others so feel free to stretch them out over a couple of days, really sink your teeth, and taste them!

1. Christmas Oratorio by J.S. Bach

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Running nearly three hours, this isn’t a piece that I would recommend trying to get through in one sitting (kinda like a Wagner opera - ufff!) It is divided into six sections, each of which corresponds to a major feast day in the Christmas period. The first three days (Christmas and the following two days) tell the story of Jesus’ birth, the annunciation, and the adoration of the shepherds. New Year’s day addresses the circumcision and naming of the Christ child, the first Sunday after New Year heralds the journey of the Magi, and the final section, which takes place on Epiphany, typically celebrated on January 6th, tells the story of the adoration of the Magi. Take your time with this piece… maybe listen to it in two big chunks or break it up even further and handle one or two movements a day. My guess is that once you get to listening, you actually won’t want to turn it off.  I recommend this lively version by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists conducted by the one and only John Eliot Gardiner.

2. “Barn Jesus,” traditional Danish Carol

This carol came across my path as I was preparing a pairing with a Chilean wine. Wait, what? It so happens that the winemaker of the 2012 Axel Primero is originally from Denmark and traveled through Chile before arriving in California to plant his own grapes. He was, however, intensely struck by his experiences in Chile and over 30 years after his first passage through the region, forged a partnership with two prominent winemaking families in Chile to create his own label, La Playa Wine. As a tribute to his heritage, we found this little gem, and we know you’ll love the soft harmonies in this a cappella version by the Calmus Ensemble. I only wish it had a couple dozen more verses as it seems to go by way too quickly!

3. “Winter” from The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi

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If we’re inclined to put on anything classical at the holidays, our first selection is likely to be Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, especially if we have little ballerinas in the family, am I right? And well we should! It is a most spectacularly magical and musically rich option. But allow me to suggest an alternative option: Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” specifically, of course, the final concerto: Winter. This piece is actually a set of four separate violin concerti, each named for a different season, beginning with Spring. There is also speculation that Vivaldi wrote sonnets to accompany each concerto. My favorite version of “Winter” is this version featuring the young soloist, Julia Fischer and the Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Broadcasting company. This ensemble takes the piece at quite a clip but I think it gives the piece the life and lift it demands, which can be lost if the tempi are taken too slowly. Listen specifically in the second movement – Largo – to the sweet trills and legato line of the solo violin supported by pizzicato in the strings, then indulge all your senses in the violin pushes us forward, to movement, to see that, as Vivaldi would have it, “winter… brings its own delights.”

4. “Invierno porteño” by Astor Piazzolla

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Vivaldi wasn’t the only one who wrote a piece honoring the four seasons. Although originally conceived as separate pieces, Argentina’s premier composer, Astor Piazzolla, penned his own version, the Estaciones porteñas. Of course, the seasons in Argentina are opposite to ours here in the northern hemisphere, so his “Invierno porteño” or “Winter in Buenos Aires” is warm and sultry, as the winter months would be in Buenos Aires. Listen especially for the luring pull of the harmonies in the strings that, to me, represent the languorous moves you find in a tango. Picture the dancers’ legs slowly stretching and curling around one another in perfect yet passionate movement as the dancers’ bodies move as one.

Here you have the complete version of “Invierno” performed by Kremerata Baltica. For a different take on the same piece, try this orchestral version.

5. “La boheme” an opera in four acts by Giacomo Puccini

Wait, you want me to listen to opera at Christmas time? Boooo-ring! Yes, you’re right. I’m asking you to listen to opera, but more than that, I’m asking you to listen to one of, in my opinion, the greatest pieces of music ever written in the history of, well, forever. There are several moments in this opera that have brought me both to tears and to the brink of ecstasy many times. The first and second acts take place on a frigid Christmas Eve in Paris around the year 1830. In the first act, Mimi comes to Rodolfo’s door as her candle has gone out, and she cannot find her key. The attraction is instantaneous, and the two tell each other the stories of their lives, before falling in love in what can only be described as the fastest courtship in history. Rodolfo’s first aria, “Che gelida manina,” Mimì’s response “Si, mi chiamono Mimì,” and the final duet of the act show are the musical definitions of passion in my mind, and I dare you not to hang on every note. For me, there is no one who comes close to the pure vocal and emotional beauty of the great Luciano Pavarotti, and here you have one of the earliest performances recorded at just 29 years of age. For the full opera version, try this one from La Scala in Milan recorded in 1979.