Bel Canto Company, David Pegg, conductor, with Mandy Ryan, soprano, John Cary & Peter Santogade, tenors, David Dobbins, baritone, & David Arnold, bass, and accompaniments by Deborah Egekvist, flute, Tim Berlew, organ, Susan James Frye & Norris Norwood, pianos, Julie Hammarback, harp, and Carolina Brass (Tim Hudson & Steven Dube, trumpets, Robert Campbell, horn, David Wulfeck, trombone, & Matt Ransom, tuba). 63:29. $15 plus $2.50 shipping, available online at or 336/668-1020.

A Wreath of Carols : Bel Canto Company, David Pegg, conductor, with Nancy Thurston, flute, Ivan Battle, organ/piano, Ann Doyle, organ/piano, and James Palmer, harp. 38:55. $35 (plus $2.50 shipping) for five copies, provided in earth-friendly self-mailers.

This Christmas pair from the Bel Canto Company, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season, will gladden the hearts of the ensemble’s many fans and should help introduce the Greensboro-based professional ensemble to still more music lovers. The first CD, said to be the group’s sixth release, was recorded in two different venues but is so beautifully engineered that few if any listeners will detect anything but seamless acoustical ambience. Somehow we managed to miss a couple of the early releases, but the ones we own are among the best choral recordings we have yet heard.

The program ranges from the title track (given in Rutter’s exquisite arrangement) to exceptional seasonal music by many leading composers, such as Rachmaninov, Gorecki, Tavener, and Susa (“A Christmas Garland,” at 13:40, the CD’s most substantial number). Two carols by Winston-Salem’s Dan Locklair fit admirably into the mix, as do works by Robert MacGimsey and Steve Heitzeg (the latter featuring harp accompaniment). Rounding out the set are several arrangements by André Thomas and Mack Willberg. The singing is exceptional throughout, and the recording will surely give great pleasure.

So, too, will the second “new” Bel Canto release of the season, which is actually a compilation of a dozen traditional carols, culled from four previous CDs recorded 1993-99. The arrangers include David Willcocks, Parker & Shaw, Rutter, Daniel Kallman, Mark Riese, and Craig Courtney, and the singing is, as in the previous release, marvelous. Christmas comes but once a year, ’tis said, and Christmas music gets dusted off annually, too. Those who haven’t upgraded their collections since Robert Shaw produced his various holiday records could hardly do better than to invest in this heart-warming collection – and to share the other four copies that come in the package with family and friends, as Christmas greetings or stocking-stuffers. One word of warning, however: this CD seems to have been mastered at a fairly low volume level, so readjust your stereo before putting on, say, the 1812 Overture!

Additional information on these CDs and others produced by the Bel Canto Company since 1996 are available at the ensemble’s website, For information about Bel Canto’s remaining concerts this anniversary season, see our series tab or the group’s website.