A Christmas Celebration
New York Choral Artists
Director: Joseph Flummerfelt
The Boys’ Choir of Harlem
Director: Walter J. Turnbull
The Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Leonard Slatkin, conductor
This lovely Christmas Celebration recorded by Kathleen Battle in 1986 is one of the finest Christmas albums ever released. The wonderful soprano offers a selection of traditional songs among the most famous and re-interprets them with her usual artistry, an artistry that –effectively – suits these pieces very well.
The songs, as it was already pointed out, are very popular and among them there are O Holy Night, Silent Night, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Zither Carol, I Wonder as I Wander and What Child Is This? In addition, there are few songs that are not strictly connected to Christmas, as the two Ave Maria (one by Schubert and one by Bach-Gounod), but, on a total of nineteen pieces, they are not really out of place. In all these songs, the fundamental thing that allows Battle to sing with such skill and grace is the emotionally affecting and evocative conduction of Leonard Slatkin, who constantly and I would like to say paternally surrounds her with warmth and gladness. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the New York Choral Artists and The Boys’ Choir of Harlem are also superb performers: elegant and refined the orchestra, vivacious the chorus.
As for Battle, her pleasure to sing these songs is so manifest that this album becomes a merry and glorious celebration. If an angel ever recorded a Christmas album, Battle is definitely that angel and few other can compete with her. Her flawless, crystalline voice is suitable in itself to exalt the essence of the Christmas songs, but to the innate beauty she adds personal touches that colour and embellish the music with new and precious ornaments.
Perhaps the first things that really raise enthusiasm in those who listen to A Christmas Celebration are the wonderful variations on O Come All Ye Faithful, the piece that so appropriately opens it, and after that there is the emotional intensity Battle reveals in O Holy Night, her cheerful exhortation in Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabelle, her amusing rendition of Fum, Fum, Fum! (the effect is reinforced by the chorus) and the equally lively I Saw Three Ships (one of the three English carols Battle and the chorus sing together in the middle of the album). How not to be spellbound by the confident abandon with which Battle strikes up Schubert’s Ave Maria, so perfectly echoed by the gentle harp, or by her delicacy in Silent Night, as if she was afraid to break that precious silence, or her glorious announcement in Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, or by the liveliness of the Zither Carol or by the feeling of surprise and adoration she expresses in What Child Is This?
Kathleen Battle is really a singer who, after having conquered the listeners with her operatic performances, is able to enchant them with Christmas music too and to celebrate this period of the year with sincere joy for the delight of her audience.