Bryn Terfel's assets as a singer are undeniable: a rich voice of warmth and power, an immaculate sense of diction and the ability to interpret popular material in a way that doesn’t sound silly or condescending.
Yet given the Welsh bass-baritone’s busy international career, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s treading into dicey territory with an album of Christmas songs. Who hasn’t cringed at the sound of opera singers bellowing overexposed carols in languages they can't even pronounce?
However, within a few moments of hearing "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,” the opening track on “Carols and Christmas Songs,” you start to sense that this is music Terfel knows and loves. With 15 favorites, plus a bonus disc of holiday material in Welsh, the recording gets the nod for our Album of the Week.
Terfel has had an eventful 2010, having released a collection of songs from the British Isles and "Bad Boys," a sampler of villain roles. In October, he sang the role of Wotan in the Metropolitan Opera’s heavily dissected Das Rheingold. In contrast to the grandeur of Wagnerian singing, some of the best selections on this album are simplest. “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “Away in a Manger” and “What Child is This?” showcase a big but unmannered operatic voice, carefully avoiding over-embellishment.
The guest list includes tenor Rolando Villazón, in a sensitive duet of “Navidad Nuestra,” and Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, who adds texture to “Silent Night” and “What Child is This?” and the late Bing Crosby, in a "duet" version of "White Christmas." Among the Welsh selections, standouts include "Carol y Ganwyll" and "Ganol Gaeaf Noethlwm" (In the Bleak Midwinter).
If the arrangements occasionally turn schmaltzy, no matter. That's what Christmas records do best.
Bryn Terfel tells WQXR about the inspiration for "Carols and Christmas Songs":
"Carols & Christmas Songs"
Bryn Terfel, baritone; assorted choirs, Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera
Tecwyn Evans, conductor
Available at Arkivmusic.com