Marilyn Horne was perhaps born in the wrong era. She helped move Baroque opera back into the public conscious and came to be associated with it, but the Baroque interpretation of the Horne era is much different from our interpretation now. “Historically informed” renditions of Baroque operas, like the ones we see today, are streamlined. Orchestras play sparingly and singing favors pinpoint accuracy and modest ornamentation. In this way, it’s almost unfair to listen to a singer of a bygone era and critique her by modern standards. Bombast was just what they did things back then, and Marilyn Horne’s Christmas album, “O Holy Night,” performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, has bombast in spades.
The album is almost entirely traditional Christmas carols and classics, some wisely performed in their original languages (Horne is infinitely more idiomatic in the non-English tracks on this album). Recorded in 1983, the album features Horne in powerful voice, but the acidic twinges that end phrases, which were absent in earlier recordings, somewhat mar her characteristically round voice. The album has clear high points and low points. High points include a lively and charming “Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella,” a well-delivered “Gesu Bambino,” and a performance of “The Bethlehem Babe” which extols Horne’s strong gifts as a musical storyteller. “Stille Nacht” is also a highlight, with its simple and deliberate delivery. On the flip side, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” sees Horne almost drowned out by the bombastic Columbia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jerrold Ottley, in their over-scored and overly-dynamic arrangements, as well as an “O Holy Night” that features heavily the aforementioned acidic releases and relentless vibrato. “White Christmas” lacks any Bing Crosby-esque charm and sees a bizarre first verse tacked on to it. The major problem with this recording, though, is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is a hugely talented and respected group, but they are just too present on this album. They figure into every single song, come in and out too often, and Horne is left to compete with (or be washed over by) them. In fact, the last several tracks of the album are exclusively the MTC. Surely there are enough MTC Christmas albums in the world that they don’t need to overdo it on Marilyn Horne’s. The consistent presence of the MTC, coupled with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, renders the recording heavy-handed to a modern listener. It’s the musical equivalent of finishing off an entire pint of eggnog in one night. Christmassy, yes, but at what cost? You’ll be sick of it before too long.