Next to books, the gift I enjoy receiving and giving the most at Christmas (aside from a good bottle of a bold red wine, peaty Scotch, or a bold Keemun tea) is the gift of music.

As with books my taste in music these days runs mostly religious, in particular Ukrainian and Russian sacred music, and I take great joy in sharing this music with others.

Detail from CD cover of "In Bethlehem: Sacred Christmas Music from the Ukraine (Tabor Music).

Detail from CD cover of “In Bethlehem: Sacred Christmas Music from the Ukraine (Tabor Music).

Two recordings at the top of my gift giving list are In Bethlehem: Sacred Music from Ukraine (Tabor Music download $9.99)  sung a cappella by subdeacon, now priest, Joseph Matlak and Christmas Carols from The Boyan Ensemble.

The single voice of a male singer; a choral group of men and women blending their voices; the stunning voice of a soprano soloist rising about the warm voices of the men: these two recordings offer a wonderful range of beautiful voices.

And while they are vastly different, they are complementary, since they give you different perspectives on the same song.

In Bethlehem: Sacred Music from Ukraine is a warm and graceful recording of the music Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholics hear at Christmas during liturgical services, along with some traditional Ukrainian carols.

Fr. Matlak opens the recording with a traditional carol sung in Ukrainian, “Boh Predvichnyi,” or “God Eternal.” He also closes the recording with the same song sung in English. The simple lyrics capture the essence of why we celebrate Christmas:

“Christ, the son of God,
has come down from above
to reclaim us with his love,
Christ, the son of God.”

Fr. Matlak’s tenor voice is both comforting and uplifting. His versions of these sacred songs stay with you long after listening.

Christmas Carols from The Boyan Ensemble (download $9.99), a select group of male and female singers from the L. Revutsky Cappella of Ukraine, matches the vocal talents of some of the finest Ukrainian singers with the works of some of the most talented classical and modern Ukrainian composers.

H053_mainIn this recording, the ensemble turns its attention to Ukrainian folk carols, including: “Rejoice,” “Heaven and Earth,” and “God is Born” arranged by Ostap Nyzhankivskyi; “The Virgin Bore a Son” arranged by Oleksandr Koshyts; “God Eternal” and “Christ Is Born” arranged by Stanislav Liudkevych.

This is a magnificent recording, one that captures the great depth of the Ukrainian love of Christ, Christmas, and choral singing. Listen to this recording and your heart will soar to heaven. You may even weep with joy.

These two recordings will brighten the Christmas season of those who receive them as gifts. But they may also find, as I have, that there’s no reason to restrict them to the season. They offer excellent listening any day of the year.

Where you can find them

In Bethlehem: Sacred Music from Ukraine is available from Mount Tabor Studios.

Christmas Carols is available from Musica Russica. You can also find another twenty collections of Christmas music at the site from the Protection of the Holy Virgin Choir, Conspirare, Cappella Romana, the Estonian Philharmonic Choir, the Heruvymy Ukrainian Female Quartet, Pavan Women’s Choir, the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York, and more.

Another source for chant

Liturgica.com is another excellent source for Byzantine, Gregorian, Russian, and Medieval chant, along with Renaissance and Baroque sacred music, Old Roman chant, Jewish music, and ethnic music of various traditions. Books can also be purchased. The site features recommendations from experts for new and experienced listeners. For the Nativity or Christmas, consider: Christ Is Born: Ancient Hymns of Nativity & Theophany by All Saints of America Mission; or Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ by Cappella Romana.