Choosing a Christmas album

The tradition of opera singers lending their voices to everyone's favorite carols and devotional songs is about as old as recordings in general. But this year, something new is going on, and I'm not so sure it's an improvement. Both Christmas With Kiri (London, digital, CD 414 632-2) and Kathleen Battle: A Christmas Celebration (EMI/Angel, digital, LP DS-37363) find the respective sopranos unwilling to sing out in genuine operatic fashion.

With Kiri Te Kanawa, this is perhaps understandable, if not altogether appreciated. For there are now two Kiris - the operatic warbler and the moneymaking pop-singing wonder. Miss Te Kanawa forges on in her ``crossover'' style for this new Christmas album. The results, while often frustrating to opera lovers, are not completely unappealing.

She sings pedestrian arrangements of such favorites as ``White Christmas,'' ``Winter Wonderland,'' ``The Little Drummer Boy,'' and ``O Holy Night'' very prettily and very blandly. Te Kanawa never brings one song to life interpretively. Perhaps it is just as well that there are only 44 minutes of recorded music on this release, however uneconomical that makes it from the consumer's point of view. At least the voice is disarmingly beautiful even in this style, and it all makes excellent background music.

Miss Battle's album also makes good background music. If you listen too closely, it quickly becomes insipid, with all her precious, soft-grained singing of over 60 minutes' worth of delectably arranged ``Ave Marias,'' ``O Holy Nights,'' and ``First Nowells.'' If Te Kanawa is trying to lend a pop-singer sound to her album, then Battle must be striving for a very preteen-age sound. Given how beautiful her voice really is, this is as mystifying as it is surprising.

So where does this leave the Christmas album buyer? You couldn't do better than Leontyne Price: A Christmas Offering (London 411 614-1 - LP) with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, one of the great Christmas albums of all time. On the pop side, Barbra Streisand - A Christmas Album has just been handsomely transferred to CD (Columbia CK 9557).

And for something totally different, what about the new Boston Camerata album A Renaissance Christmas (Nonesuch 79134-1 1-lp)? It offers some enchanting music, some tunes you actually know, and others you'll want to know. It is strung together with texts from the 16th-century Tyndale Bible and offers nearly an hour of music that was as popular in its day as ``White Christmas'' is in ours.

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