02 December 2016

A Vocal Holiday Trio

A Vocal Holiday Trio
by Kristin Battestella

Hang on to your ear drums for this trio of Christmas sessions brimming with big crescendos, sweeping arias, and plenty of star power gone caroling.

A Christmas Celebration: Kathleen Battle – Make room for some huge notes for this 1986 hour featuring everything from two divine “Ave Maria” renditions and a truly lullaby “Away in a Manger” to the medieval “What Child is This” and a happy “Zither Carol.” The familiar religious operatic swells keep coming with the welcoming “O Come All Ye Faithful,” impeccable “O Holy Night,” powerful “Silent Night,” and rousing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” However, short versions of rarer carols like “Bring a Torch Jeannette and Isabell,” “Fum Fum Fum,” “Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming,” “Gesu Bambino,” “Marie Wiegenlied,” and “Rise Up Shepherd” add a pleasing and sentimental yet international, performance atmosphere. A somber “I Wonder as I Wonder” and the tender “Mary Had a Baby” accent the choir-backed “I Saw Three Ships/The First Noel/The Holly and The Ivy” medley before the session goes out in style with a giant, Christmas concert in itself reprise finale featuring Veni Veni Emmanuel/ It Came upon a Midnight Clear/ O Little Town of Bethlehem /Silent Night/O Come All Ye Faithful. Whew! This is an old CD with a very low volume mix, which makes it tough to have individual tracks in a random holiday playlist. It's also one of the first discs I ever owned, so many artists often pale in comparison to the booming vocals here. Though I'm sure we often try, most listeners can't exactly sing along, and at times, it is tough to understand the lyrics of such operatic or obscure renditions – this epic session doesn't quite cater to the masses despite an inclusive variety with Catalan, French, Czech, Italian, and German carols. Fortunately, new downloads make it easy to pick and choose from your favorite octaves for an evening of reverent awe.

Stars of Christmas – Catch all holiday sets like this are a dime a dozen, and this generically named and occasionally billed as a Volume 3 CD hour has its share of clunkers alongside great tracks from big names that are tough to find elsewhere. Perennial essentials like “Sleigh Ride” from the Boston Pops and expected artists like Bing Crosby on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and Frank Sinatra's “O Little Town of Bethlehem” anchor a helping of family fun with Eddy Arnold's “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” and “Up on the Housetop” and Doris Day's carefree “Deck the Halls.” Children join in with Patti Page for “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” and a triple Perry Como with “Jingle Bells” and “Twelve Days of Christmas” is surprisingly solid in the reverent “Ave Maria” – as is Eddie Fisher's “O Come All Ye Faithful” compared to Andy Williams' somewhat nonchalant “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” There are some unusual tracks and questionable renditions here, too, including the unfortunately plain “Joy to the World” from Vic Damone, Engelbert Humperdink's easy listening “Away in a Manger,” Vicki Carr's too soft “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and a struggling “O Holy Night” by Bobby Vinton. Although the fine medieval strings of Jose Feliciano's “We Three Kings” seems a little out of place amid the casual flavor, it matches the absolutely dynamite medley of “The First Noel/Silent Night/O Holy Night” by Kate Smith. Mahalia Jackson's “Silent Night” finale is also yes please and amen, and overall the mid century nostalgia here has enough spiritual attention and holiday lightheartedness for a family party or trimming the tree.

Christmas with The Three Tenors – I had to check and make sure I hadn't already reviewed this somewhat rough around the edges 2007 compilation hour, as a 'Christmas Three Tenors' search brings up hundreds of titles! These recordings apparently come from a variety of performances without notes as to their concert, and Placido Domingo receives the unceremonious coal at only two stirring appearances for “Requeim/Ingemisco” and “Et Incarnatus Est.” Instead, The Royal Music College squeezes in with the brief “A Christmas Medley” and “Vivaldi's Gloria” amid familiar but no less powerhouse odes including Luciano Pavarotti's “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Gesu Bambino” and a “Silent Night” finale from Jose Carreras. Poor mixing and audience noise can be heard on Pavarotti's otherwise powerful “Pieta Signora,” but the big notes keep coming in his humble “Agnus Dei.” Carreras, meanwhile, adds more somber with “Misericordia” and the reverent “Ave Verum Corpus.” Rival tugging at your tearducts “Ave Marie” versions come from both Carreras and Pavarotti, as does a doubly captivating “Panis Angelicus” and varying sweet versions of “Mille Cherubini” from Carreras and “Mille Cherubini in Coro” from Pavarotti. Try not to get confused, right? While similar downloads of The Three Tenors at Christmas or the superior The Three Tenors Christmas make it easy to pick and choose your favorite third's sweeping tracks, one probably has to be acquainted with the stars here. These are not laymen December tunes and to the breezy holiday album listener, this may be both too ecclesiastical and not Christmas enough thanks to the unfamiliar if breathtaking linguistic display. Fortunately, one just needs to know a scared octave when he hears it, and this budget presentation has a global, renaissance feeling poignant for the season.

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