Christmas with a dash of Sissel

Before I proceed to my main subject, I’d like to give a little history.

Back in May 2005, Cassia and I were fortunate enough to see an edition of Music and the Spoken Word featuring Sissel, the Norwegian-born singing sensation.  Those of you who may be unfamiliar with the name are likely quite familiar with the voice, as she provided the “ooohs” and “aaahs” on the Titanic soundtrack.

To be brief in words, the show was fantastic.  So we were thrilled to learn that Sissel would be reuniting with the Tabernacle Choir for its 2006 Christmas Concert.  I tried to obtain tickets to that particular program, but to no avail.  Fortunately, a half-hour “condensed” version of the concert is recorded for the Spoken Word broadcast the Sunday following the event.

We were stunned.  When the program ended, I turned to Cassia and said, “We’ve got to get that when it comes out on DVD.”  (She agreed, but Cassia has also learned that when I set my mind to obtaining a particular CD or DVD, I generally do so regardless of her enthusiasm for it.)

Unfortunately, that meant a long wait.  Unlike the standard theatrical-to-DVD window of 3-5 months, Christmas-themed material tends to be released the following year to maximize sales.  And there was a bit of risk involved to blind-buying the DVD: I had eagerly anticipated the release of the previous year’s Christmas Concert DVD featuring soprano Renee Fleming, but upon viewing the broadcast on PBS I found her manner of delivery . . . well, to these untrained ears and mind, a bit Miss Piggy-ish.  Some sopranos just can’t hit those soaring highs without that particular effect happening to their voice.  That’s not a knock against Ms. Fleming, who is about as well-regarded an operatic soprano as you’re likely to find anywhere in the world.  I’m just not a big fan of that kind of sound (and it is my chief complaint against the full-length recording of Handel’s Messiah the Choir did a few years back with Sir David Willcocks – the “Miss Piggy” soprano just hits my ears like nails on a chalkboard).

But I needn’t have worried.  Sissel had twice demonstrated to us that her voice could hit those upper registers – and beyond – and sound crystal clear.  All that was left to do was wait.  Deseret Book had it on their website as early as the beginning of October, but us East Coast folk had to wait a little while longer to get it.  (Okay, so it was more like two weeks, but that’s a pretty long time to wait for something this eagerly anticipated.)  When I saw both the CD (titled “Spirit of the Season”) and the DVD for sale at our “local” LDS bookstore in late October, I snatched them both.

Both releases cover the same material, but contain slight differences that are worth noting.  Here’s a glimpse of the CD cover art:

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Followed by the DVD:

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The most obvious difference between the two releases is that one contains video and the other doesn’t.  But the visuals are quite sumptuous.  Not only is the LDS Conference Center decked out with the full Christmastime regalia, but a few of the numbers (including the show-stopping opener “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella,” “Vitae lux,” and “Lux aurumque”) include some well-choreographed dancing (not by the actual Choir members, thankfully!) and quite colorful costumes.

And as for Sissel . . . well, she’s very easy on the eyes.

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There’s such wonderment and joy in her face with every number she performs, and she communicates that to the audience with a radiance that’s undeniable.  She loves the camera, and it loves her right back.

The next major difference between the two releases is in terms of content.  Unfortunately, neither release contains the entire concert, but the larger capacity of the DVD gives us nearly all of it (music CDs are capped at 80 minutes).  Here’s a breakdown between the CD and the DVD, with the Sissel performances in bold:

CD

DVD

  A Christmas Overture
Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella
Wexford Carol
Sunny Bank
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
In the Bleak Midwinter
In dulci jubilo
Mitt hjerte alltid vanker (My Heart Always Wanders)
Noe! Noe!
  Away in a Manger
Maria Wiegenlied
  Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful
Spirit of the Season, from The Polar Express
  White Christmas
Like an Angel Passing through My Room
Bells of Christmas Medley  
Vitae lux
Lux aurumque
Silent Night
  The Christmas Story (from Luke 2)
Angels, from the Realms of Glory
CD booklet contains lyrics and English translations where appropriate. Special features include “Backstage with Sissel” interview.  No English translations are provided with the set, unfortunately.

 

I’m not sure why “Bells of Christmas Medley” was kept off the DVD, other than to ensure that DVD sales don’t completely cannibalize interest in the CD.  (The DVD was produced by PBS, while the CD was released by the Choir under its own label, so there are somewhat competing business interests at stake.)  It’s a signature number for the Bells at Temple Square, and would have been wonderful to see and hear on the DVD, but there it is.  While the DVD “exclusives” may appear at first to be staid renditions of familiar carols, they’re enriched considerably by the collective power of the Orchestra at Temple Square and conductors Craig Jessop’s and Mack Wilberg’s sublime interpretations and arrangements.  I’ve never been too keen on “White Christmas” in the past, but the performance here is so lush and romantic it’s hard not to get swept away by it.  And “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful” is a tour de force performance for the Orchestra, who truly deserve the ovation they receive at the end.  Combined with the “Christmas Overture” piece and the narration of the Christmas story from Luke 2, the DVD provides the more complete concert experience.

In terms of sound quality, the DVD again comes out on top, though the CD is no slouch either.  The lossless PCM 2.0 track on the CD is excellent, with terrific dynamic range and a great sense of “air-iness.”  This is worth noting given the disgusting trend in recent years (well documented, but online links elude me at the moment) to flatten the dynamic range of music and equalize loudness levels for “better” playback in noisy environments and over Apple’s little iPod earbuds.  Thankfully, the music engineers did not compromise their work for the masses; when Sissel’s voice reaches into the stratosphere, it sounds crystal clear; when the basses dig in on “Lux aurumque,” you’ll be amazed at how deep the male voice can go.  (I was.)  The recent Grammy nomination for Best Engineered Classical Album is quite well deserved.  To my ears, though, the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 track on the DVD sounds even better, with a depth and richness that just barely surpasses the CD.  The addition of the center and rear channels into the mix considerably improves the sense of three-dimensionality, as music envelops the listener and audience applause swells from the rear speakers to fill the room.  The .1 LFE channel, though rarely used, adds a nice oomph to the proceedings when called upon.  These are two really excellent soundtracks. 

Sissel may be a beauty, but her voice is a revelation.  She carries off every number with seeming effortlessness.  Hers is simply the most clear and unaffected soprano voice I have ever heard.  I could listen to her for days without ever growing tired of it.  It’s a real shame she isn’t better known in the U.S., and that she has yet (according to reviews) to put out a really great CD.  I hope this concert grants her the much-needed exposure she deserves, and that she can get access to better material as a result.

There are a lot of “10” moments here – music that gives you sustained goosebumps, brings tears to the eyes, and warms the heart, often all at once.  But would you believe that the best number is . . . an ABBA song?!  Believe it.  “Like an Angel Passing through My Room” was written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and appears on ABBA’s swan-song album The Visitors.  I listened to a 30-second sample of the original tune on Amazon.com, and the update it gets here is infinitely better.  I mean infinitely.  Experiencing that song for the first time was a truly soul-stirring experience unlike anything I’ve felt with music before.  While its connection to Christmas may be somewhat tenuous, its subdued nature is an excellent counterpoint to the other grand showpieces on the set.  (For the record, Cassia prefers the sublime “In the Bleak Midwinter to this.  “Midwinter” is another “10” for me – a truly magnificent piece – but “Like an Angel” just barely surpasses it in my view.  Thankfully, she has decided to remain married to me despite our disagreement on this critical issue.)

It would be unreasonable to expect the Choir to hit every song out of the park – there are a handful of competent but uninspiring performances here – but overall this set rates a solid 9/10, and is unquestionably the best Christmas album in our collection.  The Choir has set the bar for future Christmas concerts very, very high.  How well will they do this year with the King’s Singers?  We’ll be eagerly tuning in to this Sunday’s (12/16) Music and the Spoken Word to find out.  Regardless, both of these releases come very highly recommended.

 

 

(As usual, PBS will air the Christmas Concert with Sissel several times over the next few weeks.  If you’re loathe to make a blind-buy of this set, I highly recommend you tune in and experience it for yourself.  Naturally, the A/V quality of a broadcast TV signal can’t touch the clarity of the DVD, but that’s the price one pays for free. 

Go to http://www.pbs.org/previews/christmasmormontabernacle2007/ for more information, and check your local listings for the exact time and channel for your area.

Both the CD and DVD may be purchased at Deseret Book or similarly themed LDS bookstore, at any Church Distribution Center, or online at http://www.ldscatalog.com or Amazon.com.)

One Response to “Christmas with a dash of Sissel”

  1. We saw the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with Sissel last night. It was beautiful. The music was wonderful and the pagentry was especially nice. Thanks for letting us know to look for it. Love, Gramma

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