Traditional: Engel haben Himmelslieder/Gloria in excelsis Deo – Süsser die Glocken nie klingen – Kommet, ihr Hirten – Was soll das bedeuten? – Vom Himmel hoch, ihr Englein, kommt! – Leise rieselt der Schnee – Macht hoch die Tür – O du fröhliche – Still, still, still – O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf – Kling, Glöckchen, klingelingeling – Es wird scho glei dumpa – Maria durch ein Dornwald ging – O Tannenbaum – Still, still, still – Entre le bœuf et l'âne gris
Michael Praetorius: In dulci jubilo – Es ist ein Ros entsprungen
Georg Friedrich Handel: Tochter Zion
Christoph von Schmid: Ihr Kinderlein, kommet
Friedrich Silcher: Alle Jahre wieder
Josef Annegarn: Lasst uns froh und munter sein
Carl Gottlieb Hering: Morgen, Kinder, wird’s was geben
Johann Sebastian Bach: Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier, BWV 469
Franz Xaver Rambold: Im Woid is so staad
Martin Luther: Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her
Franz Xaver Gruber: Stille Nacht – Silent Night
John Francis Wade: Adeste fideles
Adolphe Adam: Cantique de Noël
Pietro Yon: Gesù bambino
Felix Mendelssohn: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Gustav Holst: In the Bleak Midwinter, H. 73 No. 1
Emmy Köhler: Nu tändas tusen juleljus
Ralph Vaughan Williams: What Child Is This?
Irving Berlin: White Christmas
James Lord Pierpont: Jingle Bells
Hugh Martin: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Felix Bernard: Winter Wonderland
Mel Tormé: The Christmas Song
Jule Styne: Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Walter Afanasieff/Mariah Carey: All I Want For Christmas Is You
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), St. Florianer Sängerknaben, Franz Farnberger (chorus master), Bachchor Salzburg, Alois Glassner (chorus master), Mozarteumorchester Salzburg, Jochen Rieder (conductor), Florian Pedarnig (harp), Till Brönner (trumpet), Cologne Studio Big Band, Wieland Reissmann (conductor)
Recorded in Salzburg, Austria (December 2, 4 & 5, 2020), Munich, Germany (August 2020) and Bonn, Germany (July 12–16, 2020) – 118’
Sony Music 194397868227 – Booklet in English and German
Christmas is arriving early for Jonas Kaufmann fans. The venerable German tenor’s newest album, “It’s Christmas!” is a packed double-album of music for the holiday season. It joins a catalogue of recordings of opera stars who have recorded Christmas albums, but perhaps takes a unique place given the unparalleled sheer amount (and range) of material enclosed in one package. For better or for worse, it is a vast collection of hymns, carols and popular songs that, as relayed in the intimate liner notes by Kaufmann, are very personal for a Kaufmann Christmas.
On such a wide-ranging program, from Bach to late 20th century pop, there is a full panoply of vocal styles from the German tenor. Some tracks are more successful than others. Surely, there are several pleasing tracks here that are expressive in Kaufmann’s famously powerful voice that allows for long, flowing phrases driven by a stentorian tone. But there is evidence here of vocal wear that is occasionally distracting. Kaufmann’s head voice is uneasier than usual, his lower notes more hollow, and the thrilling dark color of his upper voice is brought lower in his range than usual. One need only listen to the melisma in the opening track of Gloria in excelsis Deo to hear how un-lyrical this can sound. Indeed, some of the surprisingly less effective tracks are ones that should be among the more thrilling for Kaufmann’s fach: Handel’s Tochter Zion or Luther’s Vom Himmel hoch, two brass-like hymn tunes sound somewhat underpowered, perhaps due to the medium vocal range on both. Another consideration might be the close vocal mic placement on these songs which doesn’t give the voice ample room to bloom.
Among the successes, however, are the stretch of German tunes that are more folkish (an apt nod to their secular roots). Kaufmann’s rendition of Ihr Kinderlein, kommet is a particular highlight with the tenor portraying a wonderful lyricism on the vocal chords, full of warmth, without sacrificing core of the sound. Likewise, Lasst uns froh und munter sein is a highlight with ease of lyricism and text, with cheery sounds from the St. Florianer Sängerknaben. As a musical fixture in the intimate company of family, this music brings the tenderness of the holidays into focus. On the other hand, selections from this genre that Kaufmann tries to finesse too much, like Morgen, Kinder, wird’s was geboren, or Süsser die Glocken nie klingen, are vocally hollow with a strained messa di voce in the latter. On balance, the first disc of this album is a fine, if occasionally scattered, collection of carols that is a satisfying soundtrack to a cold winter evening surrounded by kith and kin. The Mozarteum Salzburg makes for a festive accompaniment.
The second disc of the album, however, is a case of more being less, with a collection of traditional carols and popular Christmas songs occasionally bordering on awkward. The disc is capped off by a rendition of Mariah Carey’s, All I Want for Christmas Is You, which, to quote my perceptive significant other, you can’t un-hear. Even the traditional carols on this disc miss the mark. Adeste, fideles, O Holy Night and others lack expansion, both in voice and phrasing, feeling stilted, and are marked by a distracting English accent with over-pronounced “r’s.” The disc soon devolves into kitsch after moving past Emmy Köhler’s Nu tändas tusen juleljus, a rare highlight on this half. The musical interest in a few of the other more promising arrangements, Gesù bambino and Entre le bœuf et l’âne gris is overshadowed. A rare bright spot among the kitsch is Kaufmann’s rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, one of the more melancholy American Christmas songs that is given a restrained arrangement here and Kaufmann’s crooning is uncommonly relaxed. But other American contributions to the canon such as Jingle Bells and Winter Wonderland, are as awkward and overproduced as one could imagine. You’ll just have to hear the Mariah Carey tune for yourself.
It’s hard to imagine reaching for this from the top stack of operatic Christmas recitals. It certainly has its moments and, if it were only one disc long, might earn a notable place among Christmas albums from other opera stars such as Kathleen Battle or Leontyne Price. But the best of these albums have an overtly focused musical direction. Anne Sofie von Otter’s is among these for me. Even though hers is occasionally unorthodox, there is an authenticity that Kaufmann only occasionally captures here. Perhaps the fault here is that this was captured in three separate sessions and jammed into one album (complete with cheesy liner photos). Nevertheless, ’tis the season for giving. Who can fault the world’s most popular tenor for giving an hour’s worth too much?
Matthew Richard Martinez