Various Artists

The Best of Great Voices: 20th Century Masters/Christmas Collection

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It's Christmas with a bunch of opera singers. This discount-priced compilation leads off with Luciano Pavarotti intoning the English lyrics of "O Holy Night" in his heavy Italian accent, which gives a good indication to the potential customer about what the rest of the disc is like. After a verse, Pavarotti wisely switches over to Italian, eliminating the self-parody of the first two minutes of the track and the album. But the point is made. The cumbersomely titled The Best of Great Voices of Christmas: 20th Century Masters/The Christmas Collection is a solemn, self-serious treatment of holiday music composed by the likes of Handel, Mozart, and Bach, as performed by some of the top opera singers of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Those performances tend to be more impressive the further they get from conventional Christmas carols. These tenors and sopranos (and choirs) are much more comfortable with Handel's Messiah (Marilyn Horne's "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion" and "Hallelujah" by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Orchestra and Chorus) and Bach's Christmas Oratorio (Elly Ameling's "Flösst, Mein Heiland, Flösst Dein Namen") than they are with traditional fare like "Good King Wenceslas" (Joan Sutherland) and "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (Kiri Te Kanawa) that actually make smaller demands on their voices. An exception to this rule, however, is Renata Tebaldi's interpretation of "What Child Is This?," which manages to be both high-flown and moving.

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