Merry Christmas, opera fans! I hope that you are all enjoying the holiday and finding plenty of opera in your stockings this year. For this final installment of “December Divas,” I wanted to highlight what I (and many other opera connoisseurs out there) believe is the finest Christmas album yet produced by an opera singer: “Christmas with Leontyne Price.”
Soprano Leontyne Price took the project at the behest of the dynamic maestro Herbert von Karjan and the album was recorded in 1961.
The album benefits from Price’s being in excellent voice, sensitive conducting from von Karjan, beautiful playing by members of the Vienna Philharmonic, and spare arrangements. The approach to the entire album is one of restraint and respect for the material, and that really shines. The collaborative spirit between Price and Karjan is palpable. Price’s evenly-produced, soaring sound and clear, unaffected diction perfectly complement the evocative conducting of Maestro von Karjan.
These are all traditional Christmas carols, with the addition of the lovely spiritual “Sweet L’il Jesus.” Curiously absent from all of the other “December Divas” albums, “We Three Kings” is given a crisp, flowing reading. The Vienna Philharmonic turns into a small Baroque band for a festive “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “O Holy Night” is pleasantly un-dirgelike, Mozart’s “Alleluja” is simply charming, and Price’s rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High” is simply perfection. In “Von Himmel Hoch,” Price digs into the material a bit more, channeling the dramatic stage performer within herself, and the results are infinitely satisfying.
The Vienna Philharmonic, the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, and the Wiener Grosstadtkinderchor are all given their time to shine, and the album never ever feels like anybody is competing for dominance. The instrumental prelude preceding Schubert’s “Ave Maria” is especially charming. The choruses often pipe in (as does the organ), but it’s never intrusive.
In short, the entire album is extremely tastefully done. Price and von Karjan make an excellent match and they fully know it. This album is an absolute delight and I cannot recommend it highly enough.