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 Recording of the Week  Music for Christmas

One of today’s reigning opera divas in a seasonal programme of jazz standards and crooner classics sounds like the sort of project that could go very wrong, but Renée Fleming’s Christmas in New York is stylish, just sentimental enough, and above all just good festive fun.

Fleming in fact has a long-term background in jazz (in her autobiography, which I finished recently, she talks of how the gigs she did to fund her studies freed up the top of her voice in a way she could rarely achieve in the practice-room) and sounds entirely at home in this material, whether improvising scat in songs like The Man With The Bag or showcasing her rich middle and lower ranges – no operatic belting or intrusive vibrato here! The collaborations with fully paid-up jazz singers Brad Mehldau and Gregory Porter in particular work well, and Kelli O’Hara’s appropriately bell-bright high Broadway soprano is a lovely foil to Fleming’s richer voice in Silver Bells. Only a schmaltz-heavy In the Bleak Midwinter with Rufus Wainwright provided more sugariness than I can personally cope with, but the rest was a perfect soundtrack to trimming the Christmas tree!

Renée Fleming
Renée Fleming

Though Christmas in New York ended up evolving in an entirely different direction, Fleming had originally set out to record a ‘straight’ classical Christmas album and the initial inspiration for the project is also on re-release this winter: Herbert von Karajan’s sumptuous seasonal extravaganza with the Berlin Philharmonic, featuring Leontyne Price in a magnificent O Holy Night and quite possibly the most supersized Hark the Herald Angels on record!

The wonderful mixed-voice choir of Clare College Cambridge also have a new Christmas disc out, and like their lovely Advent collection (which I think I mentioned this time last year) it strikes a great balance between the familiar (Vaughan Williams’s The Truth Sent from Above, Britten’s A Boy was born, a handful of well-known carols by Michael Praetorius, all beautifully sung by the clear-voiced sopranos and full but never precocious lower voices) and the unexpected (when did you last see works from the Second Viennese School crop up on a Christmas CD?!). There are also three beautiful arrangements of folk-carols from Austria, England and Italy by the choir’s young director Graham Ross, plus the world premiere of Giles Swayne’s arrangement of Coventry Carol, which wouldn’t sound out of place in Britten’s Ceremony of Carols with its harp solo and opening for upper voices.

I’ve also been enjoying Venetian Christmas, out now on BIS, which seeks to recreate the sort of programme that might have been heard during the carnivalesque celebrations which took place in St Mark’s Square before Midnight Mass in the early-to-mid eighteenth century. Only Torelli’s ‘Christmas Concerto’ has any actual connection with the season – the booklet explains that ‘the music that accompanied the festivities did not necessarily need to refer to them’, and concedes that very little information exists as to what was actually played on these occasions, but this ‘educated guess’ programme of vocal works and concerti by Vivaldi, Hasse, Torelli and Perotti (all composers with Venetian connections) brings much pleasure and is played with verve on authentic instruments by Arte Dei Suonatori. The agile, warm-toned British soprano Ruby Hughes (winner of the London Handel Competition in 2009) is engaging in Hasse and Vivaldi, and a special delight is the presence of the psaltery in the first few tracks – the instrument apparently played a prominent role in Christmas music of the period, particularly in Venice, and its magical overtones certainly set the scene most effectively!

Four potential stocking-fillers of various flavours here, then – or perhaps just four ideal soundtracks for a glass of mulled wine!

Renée Fleming: Christmas in New York

Renée Fleming (soprano) and performers including Wynton Marsalis, Brad Mehldau, Rufus Wainwright and others

Available Format: CD

Karajan - The Christmas Album

Herbert von Karajan and other performers including: Leontyne Price (soprano), Anna Tomowa-Sintow (soprano), Wiener Singverein, Berliner Philharmoniker (Download not available in all countries)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Lux de caelo: Music for Christmas

Choir of Clare College, Cambridge & Dmitri Ensemble, Graham Ross

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

A Venetian Christmas

Arte dei Suonatori, Martin Gester

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC