Saturday, June 11, 2005

Leontyne's Christmas album all dressed up



Decca recently re-released all three of their big-opera-star Christmas albums: those of Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, and, perhaps most memorable of all, Leontyne Price. This was recorded in Vienna in the Summer of 1961 with Herbert von Karajan on the podium, and members of the Vienna Philharmonic and several of the city's best-known choruses. A real Cadillac--make that Mercedes--setting all the way. John Culshaw produced and Gordon Parry was the engineer--both famous for the great Solti Ring.

All these high-class elements make for a holiday album for the ages. Price is in her best, most youthful voice, before her crisis during La fanciulla del West at the Met that Fall, after which even her most loyal fans will admit the voice never quite sounded as effortlessly radiant. Here it's simply glorious--listen for proof to the ending of "We Three Kings of Orient Are," a floated high note that a cranky friend of mine calls one of the most efforlessly gorgeous tones ever comitted to record. Likewise the opening lines of "Von Himmel Hoch"--simply ravishing. There's very little here that fails to make its full effect.

I'll say only that I detect a slight lack of "festiveness"--the album lacks a celebratory aspect, something that simply pervades the Sutherland. It's more a low-key, private recital, thanks no doubt to Karajan, who views this all in abstract, beauteous terms. It succeeds on that level, to be sure. But don't expect jingle bells all the way, or Santa coming to town. Honey, you ain't gonna find it here.



The transfer is lovely. Everything floats in the air of the Sofiensaal, as it did on the far hissier open-reel tape edition way back when. This is much better in every respect, and the digipak cover is a nice reproduction of the U.K. original.

Two thumbs way up and a hearty Christmas cheer.

MK

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