Magazine | December 20, 2010, Issue

Music: There They Go A-Caroling

Jay Nordlinger ruminates on Christmas albums down the decades

There has been Christmas music ever since there has been Christmas. And there have been Christmas albums ever since there have been albums. Before albums, of course, there were single cuts. In 1916, Caruso recorded “Cantique de Noël,” which we Anglos know as “O Holy Night.” The great Italian sang it in French. But we can go back farther than 1916. Olive Fremstad, the Swedish-American soprano, recorded “Silent Night” — actually, “Stille Nacht” — in 1911. And Charles Gilibert, the French baritone, recorded “La Vierge à la crèche” (Périlhou, not Franck) in 1907. You can find both of these cuts on a Masterworks Heritage disc, The Christmas Album. Gilibert comes through with amazing vibrancy.

One thing about Christmas albums, they almost always sell well. Otherwise, they wouldn’t continue to be made. A few years ago, I said to a well-known soprano, “Why haven’t you made a Christmas album? I think you should.” She said, “A record exec once told me that you know a singer is on her way out when she makes a Christmas album. It’s a last stop, a last gasp.” Well, sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

Let’s run through a few Christmas albums, including a new one. I will be far from exhaustive. I will leave out many of your favorites, and some of mine. And I think we’ll stick to classical artists. Jimmy Durante singing “Frosty the Snowman,” Eartha Kitt singing “Santa Baby,” Mel Tormé singing his “Christmas Song” — all wonderful. I appreciate Mariah Carey singing “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” too. I admit, though, that I’ve never seen the point of Bruce Springsteen shouting “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”

And before we leave the popular world, let us bow our heads to Bing Crosby and “White Christmas” — the best-selling Christmas song penned by a Russian-born Jew, Irving Berlin. It appeared in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. (The motel chain later named itself after the movie.) Many a classical singer has recorded “White Christmas” — and not just baritones, and not just men, either. Do you know the verse of this song (as opposed to the chorus, which we all know)? It’s seldom done. And it tells you why the person is dreaming of a white Christmas. I first heard the verse from Marilyn Horne, the great American mezzo-soprano. It goes,

The sun is shining, the grass is green,

The orange and palm trees sway.

There’s never been such a day

In Beverly Hills, L.A.

But it’s December the 24th

And I’m longing to be up north . . .

I have a feeling that one of the reasons Horne sings the verse is that she did much of her growing up in Southern California.

She made her Christmas album in 1983, just before she turned 50. She did so with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, no less. So this is a grand album, with all the bells and whistles, or many of them. It is not schlocky or absurd, however. Horne has too much taste, and too much musicality, for that. The noble power with which she sings “The First Nowell” is thrilling. And there is also on this album a rarity: a homely little carol called “The Bethlehem Babe,” which she learned in grade school. Just about no one else had ever heard it. And Horne has given it a certain immortality. She sang this carol, by the way, in Carnegie Hall two Christmases ago. At 74, she still sounded like Horne.

Tebaldi was a little past it when she made her Christmas album in 1971. She wasn’t old: only 49, the same age Horne was when she made her Christmas album. But she was wearing out. Still, she was Tebaldi — and such carols as “Mille cherubini in coro” have charm and allure. (“Mille cherubini . . .” is practically the Italian national carol. It is fashioned after a Schubert song, “Wiegenlied,” or “Lullaby.”) Another great soprano, Schwarzkopf, made her Christmas album in 1957, when she was 41. I doubt there is a better Christmas album, recorded by a lone classical singer. Schwarzkopf is all fervency, style, and devotion. Astonishing what can be done with “I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In).” A third great soprano, Leontyne Price, was a mere 34 when she made her Christmas album, or rather, her first one. The year was 1961. She was accompanied by a ritzy band, the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Karajan. The album has always been a brisk seller, and probably always will be: It captures Price at the zenith of her youthful purity.

#page#In the late 1990s, the Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter made Home for Christmas — one of the best-loved Christmas albums of recent years. Von Otter is an erudite, cosmopolitan, musicianly musician, and this album shows it. She followed it up with Noël in 2006. It is an eclectic and warming album, like the first. Another recording of recent years is The Gifts of Christmas, with Heidi Grant Murphy, the soprano from Washington State, accompanied by her pianist husband Kevin. “HGM,” as she’s known in the business, is “radiant,” “angelic,” “soul-filled.” These are all clichés about her; but they’re true. The Murphys’ album is marked by simplicity (in the best sense), sincerity, and high musical values. I must tell you, on the principle of full disclosure, that I am a friend of the couple. But may I say I was a fan first?

Bergonzi — whom I have never met — made his Christmas album in 1982, at the ripe age (for a singer) of 58. Being an Italian, the famed tenor sings “Mille cherubini in coro.” He also sings, in magnificent Italian English, “White Christmas.” Can you think of another Italian tenor? Maybe Pavarotti? He frequently recorded Christmas music, with that incomparable instrument. Sometimes his singing is too trumpet-like — without enough bend or lilt. Sometimes it is perfect. Domingo made a recording with the Vienna Choir Boys back in the 1970s. They pipe innocently; he pours forth Latin virility. “Adeste Fideles” — “A Dusty Fiddle,” in my house — is a ringing anthem, loaded with testosterone.

Sticking with tenors, Roberto Alagna, the Frenchman of Sicilian parentage, made one of the weirdest Christmas albums ever in 2000. It is a mixture of the corny, the vulgar, the touching, and the brilliant. It begins with a carol that Alagna himself wrote: “Gentil Père Noël.” This is a pleasant, bubblegum-ish, catchy number. He also sings a song, “Guardian Angels,” co-written by the distinguished harpist Harpo Marx. (I understand he also worked with his brothers in comedy.) And the disc ends with a freaky-deaky, Hawaiian (yes) “White Christmas.”

The bins — symbolically speaking, these days — are filled with choral albums: choral albums for Christmas. I will mention just a few. Is there anything wrong with A Robert Shaw Christmas — Angels on High? No. “O magnum mysterium,” by the contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen, is a stunning track on that disc. If you feel like Christmas à la russe, try Russian Christmas, with the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, led by Nikolai Korniev. The Russians know how to do Christmas. So, for sure, does John Rutter, who with his Cambridge Singers made an album called Christmas Star. Rutter is the English composer, arranger, and conductor. He has written plenty of Christmas music that, I believe, will last. Some of his fellow composers like to mock him, as too “traditional” and all. I believe they mock him because they have half his talent and a fiftieth of his success. One thing in favor of Christmas Star is that it avoids an overall grimness. You know the English and Christmas: Sometimes the midwinter can be all too bleak. Sometimes “mystery” turns into undue solemnity, even a melancholy.

This perhaps gives me an opening to do my annual grumping about Messiah performances nowadays. Everyone is eager to be musicologically correct, which is certainly not the same thing as musically correct. So we get itty-bitty Messiahs, with itty-bitty orchestras and choruses, making itty-bitty, scratchy, airless, hooty sounds. Handel, I believe, would be appalled. Most distressing is that so many performances are joyless. I always say, “If you’re singing ‘For unto us a child is born,’ can’t you at least pretend to be happy about it?” There is a middle ground between swollen, 19th-century-style Messiahs and the wheat germ we are often served today. I value Colin Davis’s recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus from 1966. It is a tremendous experience, musically and spiritually. And if you feel like indulging in Sir Thomas Beecham’s grandiose, illegitimate Messiah from 1959 — go ahead. Everyone needs a hot-fudge sundae now and then, to go with his wheat germ. And Sir Thomas was incapable of being other than musical.

#page#Back to choral albums, of carols and whatnot: The King’s Singers are the six-man a cappella group from England; Chanticleer is the twelve-man a cappella group from San Francisco. They have both made many Christmas albums, and they both do a very good Christmas. I think some of Chanticleer’s arrangements are unfortunate — smacking too much of the cocktail lounge. But others are right on the money.

I said I would discuss a new album, and so I will. It comes from Bryn Terfel, the Welsh bass-baritone. Over the years, I have called him the most likable man in music, and he is not getting any less likable. On the cover of his new album — Carols & Christmas Songs — he is wearing a scarf. There is a time-honored tradition of scarf-wearing on Christmas-album covers. Domingo wore one, on an album years ago. Alagna has a scarf. Terfel is even hugging himself, as though shivering. Nice try, Bryn.

His album is two albums, actually. One disc is mainly in English, and the other is all in Welsh. The record label, Deutsche Grammophon (which is not Welsh), calls this a “bonus disc.” On both discs, Terfel sings a range of songs, most of them traditional: “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “In the Bleak Midwinter” (!), and so on. On the first disc, he sings “White Christmas.” This is not a solo version: It’s a duet with — who else? — Bing Crosby. Technology makes this possible. We are in an era when you can perform with just about anybody. Recently, Joshua Bell, the Hoosier violinist born in 1967, recorded a Grieg sonata with Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Russian pianist-composer who died in 1943 (in Beverly Hills, L.A., as it happens — where they dream of a white Christmas). How this works, I’m not really sure. I just know it does, pretty much.

In all of his carols and songs, Terfel sings with his usual immediacy of communication, and also with one of the most beautiful voices in creation. I think some of the arrangements are hard to stomach — too soupy, too cutesy, too cocktail-lounge. In many cases, straighter and more classical would be better. But Terfel and his team apparently like what they like.

What are your three favorite Christmas tracks, all-time? I will spit out three, just as a parlor exercise. I will name 1) Leontyne Price, on that 1961 album, singing “O Holy Night.” “Holy” is the word. 2) Heidi Grant Murphy and Kevin Murphy performing the “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol,” by Rutter. Lilting, sinuous, a little bluesy — irresistible. And 3) Chanticleer singing a spiritual, “Jerusalem in the Morning,” which comes on their 2001 disc Christmas with Chanticleer. It brings you hootin’ and hollerin’ tidings of great joy. Every year, I wear the grooves off — or what would be grooves, if this were a record from the Great Caruso’s time.

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