Angelika Kirchschlager sings Christmas Carols

Kirchschlager; Tonkünstler-Orchestra Niederösterreich/Eschwé; Deutsch (Sony 88697199412)

14 December 2008 3 stars

KirchschlagerHowever unsuited to the repertoire an operatic voice might be, there's a long history of opera stars employing their capacious lungs to spread the Christmas message.

Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price and many more have produced albums giving Christmas carols the operatic treatment – Price with the backing of the Vienna Philharmonic under Karajan, no less – yet this album from Angelika Kirchschlager is rather tentative, apologetic and unsure of what it's setting out to acheive. At least that is the case with the nine carols (supposedly 'from around the world', but only really from Western Europe) which start the disc, where all the jollying up by John Lenehan in his arrangements fails to bring much in the way of Christmas joy to proceedings.

Kirchschlager goes through the motions with little sense of enjoyment and is constantly hampered by poor English, which means not only vowels are mangled but that she's not able to bring any variety or interest to the verses. Her unembellished singing of the music in her well-produced but inappropriately robust mezzo and Lenahan's perfunctory and drab arrangements mean there's not even the camp thrill that comes with the over-the-top arrangements used by some of Kirchschlager's more diva-like predecessors.

The second half of the disc is a very different story. Here Kirchschlager leaves the Tonkünstler-Orchestra Niederösterreich (under the leadership of Alfred Eschwé) behind and is joined by her pianist Helmut Deutsch in Peter Cornelius's Christmas Carols Op.8 and two Christmas Lieder by Engelbert Humperdinck. The programme closes with a disarmingly simple – and beautiful – account of 'Stille Nacht', with Kirchschlager accompanied by two (uncredited) guitarists. 

If it wasn't for the songs of the second half, this disc would be recommendable only to the most die-hard Kirchschlager fans. It's a huge shame that the whole disc wasn't made up of similar music in similarly authentic guise. Kirchschlager is currently starring at the Royal Opera House in Hansel and Gretel, a work which shows what a wonderful composer Humperdinck was, as well as how he found a strategy for escaping Wagner's shadow, allying fairy-tale subject matter to simplified Wagnerian techniques; his Königskinder, too, has been revived recently, most notably in Zurich with Jonas Kaufmann. Cornelius's stage works, although occasionally revived and recorded, are far rarer. It is probably for the third of the Christmas Carols included here – 'Drei Könige', usually performed in a choral guise – that he is best known.

In Kirchschlager's straight-forward, heartfelt performances there's a lot to enjoy in the other Cornelius Carols, too. They all display a natural melodic gift and range from the slight, easy-going and appealing (as in 'Christbaum' and 'Christkind') to pure products of German Romanticism, as in 'Dir Hirten' and 'Simeon' which are characterised by a rather unchristmassy but delicious mixture of Schumann and Brahms. There's a simplicity too to 'Drei Könige' here in its original guise, with the beautiful chorale accompaniment taking on an extra purity on the piano.

First of the Humperdinck songs is the lullaby, 'Christkindleins Wiegenlied', a soothing melody against the piano's lilting accompaniment that is performed beautifully and simply, Deutsch enjoying the effects of the piano's soporific lower register. The piano's accompaniment in 'Weihnachten' seems to conjure up some of the 'tausend Sternen' described in the verses in a song that produces more in the way of heart-warming sentiment and atmosphere in three minutes than the whole first half of the disc.

It's such a shame that Sony seem to have lacked the courage of their convictions, producing a disc that's neither one thing nor the other. Those who would want to explore the world of Christmas-themed Lieder – and I'd imagine there's a wealth of them out there, and at least enough of good quality to fill a whole disc by themselves – would have little interest in sitting through this disc's tedious first half. I just hope that anyone buying the disc for the Carols will find the Lieder of the second half considerably more enchanting, and even feel moved to explore that tradition. The bonus track, 'Bereite dich, Zion' from Bach's Christmas Oratorio, taken from Kirchschlager's 2002 Bach disc with the Venice Baroque Orchestra under Andrea Marcon, is excellent but seems little more than a rather lazy way of bringing the disc's playing time over the fifty-five minute mark.

Sony's booklet contains texts and English translations but the liner-note is waffly and remarkably short on information. A frustrating release.

By Hugo Shirley