Sylvia McNair has enjoyed an amazing career, making recordings for the major classical labels that were routinely critically acclaimed, performing in opera houses and in recital all over the world, even at one point singing Bach's B minor Mass for Pope John Paul II. Wheaton College's Love's Pure Light is Sylvia McNair's first genuine Christmas album, not including her appearances on compilations and her second-billed participation in Dorian's disc Christmas in Leipzig. The years leading up to this project have witnessed some radical shifts in McNair's priorities. Philips, her label for more than a decade, was put on life support and McNair found herself waging a personal battle against cancer. Although UMD appears just to be waiting to pull the plug on Philips, McNair beat the cancer and has developed a one-woman program that deals with it entitled "Subject to Change," quite a departure from the usual rounds of concert halls, opera productions and festivals.
Another departure is this fine disc, Love's Pure Light, which combines McNair's talents with the Wheaton College Concert Choir on a little label run by Wheaton College. The sound quality is quiet in comparison to most major-label product and has the dusky ambience of a typical university auditorium rather than the pristine presence of the studio or the cavernous grandeur of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin. But this is not that kind of recording -- the program of 16 holiday pieces is contemporary, drawing largely from African American spirituals, though not exclusively so -- Howells and Britten are heard here also -- and sung in a relaxed, gently festive mood with piano. The Wheaton College Concert Choir is very good and performs at a professional level that would be the envy of many American college choirs. McNair sings here at a level equal to or better than her best; she has a personal interest in this project, as well, as her own musical studies began as an undergraduate at Wheaton: it was here she switched from violin to voice, a crucial decision that has led to joy for so many.
Sometimes re-orienting priorities means returning to one's roots, and McNair's are in the American Midwest. Love's Pure Light is a warm, comparatively low-key Christmas album that has oodles of good vibes behind it, sung by an artist who is glad to be alive, and glad to be, in a sense, "home." This isn't some Hallmark Card confection of Christmas cheer, but the real deal, and for something that establishes a relaxed pace and warm feeling for the holiday season, Wheaton College's Love's Pure Light puts it all in the right perspective.