Christmas Album

Sylvie Valayre, Mihoko Fujimura, Camerata of London (Michael Storrs Music MSM003X)

Release Date: 31 October 2007 2.5 stars

Christmas Album: Camerata of London - MusicalCriticism.com CD review

This new CD from Michael Storrs Music explores Christmas songs and carols from around the world in performances from a multi-cultural line-up of singers. At its best, the disc presents strong renditions by performers who are currently under-represented in the recording catalogue.

But the truth is that unless one of these happens to be a personal favourite, there's little to recommend the CD to the general listener. At under thirty-eight minutes in length, it's well short of the average running time for a CD these days, and one of the mere nine tracks is instrumental-only. Using the small-scale Camerata of London reaps some musical rewards - their playing is usually atmospheric and sensitive - but the lack of instruments often leaves the accompaniments sounding thin and the absence of a conductor has problems of tuning, expression and tempo in a number of the performances. While some of the singers are superb, others are so bad that the capable ones are tainted by association, something which makes me a little sad. And frankly, does this selection of pieces really represent the ultimate in Christmas music?

The attraction for many will be the singing of Mihoko Fujimura in two tracks. The mezzo-soprano's Wagnerian performances in the last couple of years have deservedly catapulted her to international attention and here her deep rich voice and easy legato are just as much in evidence as they were in her Covent Garden performances of the Ring. However, could nothing more worthy of her talents than the monotonous 'Pechka' by Yamada be found? Much more convincing is her exquisite contribution to a quartet version of 'Silent Night', in which she is joined by a solid team of tenors - Wookyung Kim (who starred in the ROH's recent Rigoletto), Pavol Breslik and Dante Alcalá.

In their individual pieces, the tenors are mixed in quality. Breslik's version of 'O Holy Night' is excellent, outstandingly secure in the upper register and expressive throughout; it's just a shame that he's not accompanied by a full symphony orchestra, and his voice recedes behind the sound of the instruments at the very height of his final phrase (when, however, he nails the high note thrillingly). Alcalá's basic instrument is sound but he's inclined to force it and go a little out of tune as a result, hence Alvarez's 'Plegaria' is one of the less pleasant tracks on the disc. Kim's voice is purer and more in tune, but his performance of Schubert's 'Mille cherubini in coro' is utterly dull. He never varies the dynamic and barely shows a hint of emotion - and not having a conductor means that the tempo gets slower as the song proceeds.

The very worst track finds French soprano Sylvie Valayre singing 'Greensleeves' in tortuous English at the weakest part of her voice. The heavy vibrato makes for an ugly sound and though I still treasure the memory of her Elizabeth de Valois at the Proms in 1996, I'm afraid there's really nothing to recommend this performance. Young tenor Dmitri Korchak, who is about to appear in place of Rolando Villazón in Covent Garden's new L'elisir d'amore, performs the Russian song 'The Snow Maiden' with a sense of character, but not every note is placed correctly and he has some intonation problems. The same goes for bass-baritone Rodney Clarke, who has previously impressed me in his performances at ENO (in On the Town and Kismet, for instance), here failing to produce the even tuning and smooth phrasing needed for this beautiful and simple song. He does, however, pay more attention to the text than some of the other singers.

The Camerata of London plays a Fantasia on Of the Father's Heart Begotten, attractively arranged by David Hackbridge Johnson (as are most of the tracks), and the performance is evocative. But the CD overall is a bit of a mixed bag.

By Dominic McHugh