Sarah Brightman

A Winter Symphony

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You probably already know whether or not you're going to like this album, but for those who haven't yet encountered the phenomenon called Sarah Brightman, a stab at objective description may be in order. The genre is British crossover classical, with a mixture of contemporary pop-style tunes and more traditional numbers, in this case Christmas carols. Some of the factors that have made Brightman unusually successful among practitioners coming from the pop/Broadway side of the genre are on display in this seasonal release, with the outer covers showing Brightman slogging through a winter landscape and the booklet artwork showing the prone, bare-shouldered singer swathed in diaphanous linens and looking awestruck as snowflakes or confetti (better hope it's the latter) drop from above. First and foremost is Brightman's voice. You can argue over whether Andrea Bocelli or Russell Watson has operatic chops, but the debate is irrelevant in Brightman's case. She's the crossover equivalent of Donna Summer or Beyoncé, a singer who is good at adapting her voice to the needs of the surrounding production. Other examples might be the two female vocalists of ABBA, from whose Arrival LP the opening selection is drawn. But Brightman can do more with her voice than those Swedes, and part of what gives people chills is the way she can push her squeaky sound up into its top register in a piece like "Silent Night" (track 4) and not lose control. A second thing Brightman's albums do well (and here the credit goes to the producers and arrangers) is to make a symphony orchestra (several of Europe's finest, actually) sound uncannily like a pure product of studio electronics. Is that a good thing? Brightman detractors might read the Harry Crews novel Car, in which a redneck junkyard employee becomes distraught over the prevalence of mechanization and attempts to eat an entire car piece by piece, before saying no. The third effective piece of musical intelligence here is the selection of material. The subconscious cues that make music like this work are buried below the surface, and the surfaces work best if they are calmly simple. This does not foreclose gnomic lyrics like those of Andersson and Ulvaeus or of Neil Diamond (the little-known "I've Been This Way Before"); indeed, they can enhance the overall effect. Brightman and her producers have a knack for picking songs that aren't hackneyed, yet go down easily. Most of her colleagues would not have been likely to pick "Colder than Winter" by U.S. country singer/songwriter Vince Gill, for example, but it works like a charm. All in all, if you like Sarah Brightman, you are virtually guaranteed to like this album. And if you're absorbed by the strangeness that is European pop culture, you just might like it too.

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