Lyric soprano Renée Fleming delivers one of the finest new offerings of the Christmas season with the help of special guests from the worlds of jazz, pop and Broadway.
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You know Christmas is just weeks away but you can’t get your head around it.
Festive store displays only serve to remind you that you haven’t started your Christmas shopping yet.
Ads promoting this year’s hottest new toys remind you how long the hottest new toys of 2013 kept your children’s attention before they retreated to Facebook.
The Sears Christmas Wish Book is still wrapped in plastic because every time you look at it you think of how many gifts you got on credit last year.
So how do you jumpstart your Christmas spirit?
You break out the Christmas music of course!
When I hear White Christmas, Jingle Bells or Joy to the World, it doesn’t matter what the calendar says or what kind of day I’ve been having I’m ready to gorge on shortbread cookies, wrap presents and decorate everything in my path.
And the music industry is right there with me.
It seems to know right down to the minute when I’m ready to start playing Christmas music because just as I’m about to dust off Bing Crosby’s White Christmas new seasonal offerings appear in my digital mailbox.
What follows below is a look at some of this year’s best new holiday releases.
Renée Fleming: Christmas In New York
Acclaimed American lyric soprano Renee Fleming, winner of the 2013 Grammy Award for best classical vocal solo, delivers a charming collection of seasonal standards here with the help of a star-studded roster of guests artists that includes Chris Botti, Kurt Elling, Wynton Marsalis and Rufus Wainwright.
While much of the material is pulled from the classic holiday songbook there are a few surprises here, not the least of which is the inclusion of English folkie Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where The Time Goes, which isn’t generally thought of a as a Christmas song.
Some operatic performers do not fare well when they step outside their comfort zone, but Fleming is very comfortable dipping her toes in jazz and pop here.
Highlights include Still, Still, Still with Kurt Elling, In the Bleak Midwinter with Rufus Wainwright, Central Park Serenade, a new song from Diane Warren featuring the wonderful Gregory Porter, and a lovely version of Silver Bells in which Flemming duets with Broadway star Kelli O’Hara.
Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars.
Idina Menzel: Holiday Wishes
Tony Award winner Idina Menzel who earned acclaim on Broadway as Maureen in Rent and Elphaba in Wicked before starring as Elsa in Frozen sticks to the tried and true for most of this set.
Good solid arrangements and a stellar performance by Menzel makes you forget you’ve heard most of these songs a gazillion times before.
It also didn’t hurt that she has acclaimed producer Walter Afanasieff on deck. Afanasieff knows just what to do with a set of pipes like this having produced projects for Barbra Streisand Celine Dion and Mariah Carey.
Highlights of this set include the beautiful December Prayer, which Menzel co-wrote with Afanasieff and Charlie Midnight, her cover of Joni Mitchell’s River, The Christmas Song and her duet with Michael Bublé on Baby It’s Cold Outside. I’m also partial to the version of When You Wish Upon A Star she included here.
Rating: 3 ½ stars.
Various Artists: Christmas at Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey stars Elizabeth McGovern (the Countess of Grantham), Julian Ovenden (Charles Blake) and Jim Carter (Mr. Carson) are featured on this two-CD set which features some 45 tracks.
McGovern and Ovenden account for six musical selections while Carter does a wonderful reading of The Night Before Christmas.
The balance of the recording is taken up with classic Christmas hymns and carols which one might have expected to hear at an English country estate like the fictional Downton Abbey in the post-Edwardian era.
They are performed here by Dame Kari Te Kanawa, the Choir Of Kings College, The Budapest City Orchestra & The Budapest Choral Voices.
Ovenden, who in addition to his acting career is also a professional singer, performs solo renditions of O Holy Night, Sussex Carol and Silent Night and duets with rising classical star Katie Marshall on the Twelve Days of Christmas.
McGovern, who regularly performs with the folk act Sadie and the Hotheads, performs It Came Upon A Midnight Clear and duets with Ovenden on The First Noel.
It’s very traditional fare, and a very pleasant listen.
Rating: 3 stars.
Doug Gallant, a reporter with The Guardian, writes his music review column for The Guardian every week. He welcomes comments from readers at email@example.com or 629-6000, ext. 6057.