I dragged my heels when it came to writing about Renata Tebaldi’s “A Christmas Festival.” I first bought the album last year, popped it in while I was getting some work done, and quickly dismissed it. I thought it was slow, boring, poorly-curated, and featured Tebaldi in bad voice. At the behest of my friend “Mirto Picchi” (who has been instrumental in helping me organize which albums I’d cover as part of “December Divas” and how), though, I begrudgingly put the album back on this year. And my perception completely changed.
The album was first recorded in 1971, well-past Tebaldi’s prime years of singing. The voice had lost much of its glowing, beautiful sound, and her higher register was strained considerably. But these vocal concerns all take a back seat in this album. This album showcases all of Tebaldi’s strengths. It’s a masterclass in phrasing, building to a climax, and telling a story with music, a capstone to a long and distinguished singing career.
The album is subdued. Orchestrations (Played and conducted with great diligence and purpose by Anton Guadagno and the New Philharmonia Orchestra) are majestic and restrained and the Ambrosian Singers are used sparingly in pieces with choral accompaniment. The songs are either of a religious nature or classic carols, an all are sung lovingly. Among the highlights are “Silent Night,” sung so touchingly in Italian, Spanish, French, and English that it serves as a reminder that the Christmas spirit can stretch across countries, social classes, and language barriers with equal potency, a lilting performance of Brahms’ “Wiegenlied,” and the best version of “O Holy Night,” one that really communicates the arc of the story in conjunction with the soaring vocal passages, that I have heard in all my “December Divas” listening. Her reading of Gounod’s “O Divine Redeemer” yields similarly moving results with some interesting chest voice. If the familiar “Ave Maria” is indistinctive on this album, then “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle,” a traditional Italian holiday song, is especially satisfying for the way that Tebaldi’s voice “fills” the piece like water fills a glass. The rest of the songs continue to play on Tebaldi’s strengths while letting her vocal gifts speak for themselves. It’s a massively satisfying listen and a deeply moving seasonal document of a rich career. Seek out this album for Christmas Eve listening. I simply can’t imagine anything better to listen to while relaxing by a fire.