The Ambrosian Singers
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Anton Guadagno, conductor
Decca, 1971 (2004)
Great soprano Renata Tebaldi was almost at the end of her legendary career when she recorded Christmas Recital in 1971, but, after hearing her singing these popular songs with such sweetness and without any sign of weariness, it seems nothing but coherency that “the voice of the angel” recorded an album like this before leaving the stage forever.
The first surprise of Christmas Recital is not linked to music, but to the texts and to their languages specifically. Four different languages (Italian, Latin, German and English) alternate in this album and this is rather unusual for a singer as Tebaldi. She categorically refused to sing in any other language than her native Italian because she thought that this language only allowed her to express feelings and emotions in a way that was congenial to her, to the point of discouraging her from performing roles as the Wagnerian Elsa or Elisabeth in the original German despite the fact that she had sung them at the beginning of her career – in Italian, of course – with unanimous praise.
In Christmas Recital, Tebaldi contradicts herself unintentionally. The linguistic obstacle seems to have been merely (though decisively) psychologic because Tebaldi is perfectly at ease in songs as Wiegenlied, which she sings like a lullaby, as the sweet but powerfully impressive What child is this, as the Ave Marias and first and foremost as Adeste fideles.
It is precisely the glorious Adeste fideles that opens and closes the Christmas Recital. This popular piece is reinterpreted by Tebaldi as a completely new work, never heard before, when her angelical and sonorous voice expresses the most deep and heartfelt joy inviting the Christians to worship the Lord. This remarkable piece is admirable not only for Tebaldi, but also for the charming conduction of Anton Guadagno and for the excellent, booming chorus.
Tebaldi’s wonders are not limited to Adeste fideles and all the other songs are plenty of them. The most effective among them are: Tu scendi dalle stelle, where it is notable Tebaldi’s sincere, pitiful expression in the pivotal passages; Stille Nacht, sung by one of the most powerful voices of the 20th century in an uninterrupted whisper to convey the idea of warm stillness; Panis angelicus, with its solemn and profound singing; and finally Mille Cherubini, where Tebaldi performs a miracle thanks to the softness of her legato.
The most demanding and long song is O Divine Redeemer, the piece which is more similar to an operatic aria and Tebaldi shows off her energetic, intense singing that in the other songs was marked by more delicate expressivity and that here triumphs in a gripping and superb finale.
Many other singers has recorded the songs that Renata Tebaldi sings in Christmas Recital before and after her. They are not rarities at all and they reappear from time to time in this or that collection, so that it is necessary to end this review pointing out why this recording is so peculiar and what it has that the others lack. I personally think that the real distinguishing mark of Christmas Recital is Renata Tebaldi’s sincere devotion, a feature that was so important in her personal life and that in this recording has been put to service of music as well. Without this trait, this recording would not have the same value.