Christmas with Chanticleer is an offshoot of the group's popular "A Chanticleer Christmas" concerts. Like those programs, it features a blend of familiar carols and more adventurous selections, all arranged to suit the ensemble's distinctive sound and talents. The formula works very well: combining traditional arrangements like "The First Nowell" with updated takes on other classics, and throwing in a few contemporary compositions for good measure, keeps the program feeling both familiar and fresh at the same time. Soprano Dawn Upshaw makes winning guest appearances on five tracks, including the high-spirited "Spanish Carol," in which the ensemble impersonates the sound of a Spanish dance band.
Aside from their willingness to embrace a wide variety of styles, Chanticleer's biggest strength is the clarity and precision of their ensemble. Their gentle background to Upshaw's solo in Ralph Vaughan Williams' setting of "This is the truth sent from above" is haunting, and the thorny, often dissonant, textures of Hugo Distler's "Es ist ein Rosentsprungen" and Jonathan Rathbone's "Coventry Carol" sound marvelous when delivered with such crystalline purity. They do a good job capturing the old-timey feel of "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem," even if the stylized dialect they adopt for it makes it sound more like caricature than homage. Joseph Jennings' "Mary and the Baby Medley" is an appealing piece of arranging, culminating in the gospel-inflected "Jerusalem in the Morning," which makes the most of the group's abundant high falsetto voices.
If there is a weakness to the record, it's that moments of solo singing from group members often lack character and vocal charisma -- something that the group as a whole has in spades. But if you're tired of perfunctory "X sings Christmas" albums, and want something more imaginative for your Yuletide listening, Christmas with Chanticleer is just the ticket.