Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees had a nasty fright when she saw the cover photo for this DVD and thought it was Celine Dion.
"If amethysts could sing…they would sound like Judy Collins."—Richard Farina
At Christmas time, most of us like to surround ourselves with familiar things, from our childhood stockings and tree ornaments right down to the carols and songs we grew up with. This lovely performance, taped in 1997 at the magnificent Biltmore estate in Asheville, North Carolina, improves on tradition by showcasing the familiar songs with a beautifully familiar voice: that of Judy Collins, who released her first album in 1961 and has been going strong ever since. Perhaps best known for her interpretations of folk and traditional songs, Collins brings her distinctive voice—still as light, clear, and lilting as ever—to a succession of beloved Christmas tunes.
Most of the songs here are familiar, from modern favorites like "White Christmas" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" to standards like "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and "Away in a Manger" (although Collins sings this to the alternate tune, probably better known in England than America). She also includes some very early carols, like "Good King Wenceslas," "I Saw Three Ships," and the rarely heard "Cherry Tree Carol," for which she provides a beautiful, flowing piano accompaniment. There are also some surprises here, such as the nonseasonal, honky-tonk-flavored "Someday Soon" and a Christmas song penned by Collins herself, "Come Rejoice." She also performs an unusually tender and reflective interpretation of "Let It Snow," leads the audience in a stirring a capella rendition of "Amazing Grace," and closes with the gentle "Little Road to Bethlehem." It's an enjoyably varied assortment of songs, encompassing both the intimate and cozy and the stirring and jubilant. Between some carols Collins recounts childhood reminiscences, and in the musical setting of "The Night Before Christmas" she also alternates sung verses with quiet recollections of her own Christmases past. Her gentle speaking voice lulls us into a cozy holiday mood rather than jerking us out of the pleasant glow induced by the music.
The musical setting for Collins's voice is nicely judged. During some songs, Collins accompanies herself only on guitar or piano; on other songs, a small group of musicians provides accompaniment; and on other numbers, we get the whole shebang: the Charlotte Children's Choir, a brass section, percussion, organ, you name it. The choice of a children's choir for vocal backup is particularly well judged, since the sweet, pure tone of Collins's voice seems to find its natural counterpart in children's voices; an adult choir behind her might have been overpowering. Likewise, the fairly minimal accompaniment on many of the slower or more reflective songs—as well as the decision to perform some numbers a capella—allows us to experience Collins's singing without being distracted by a lot of unnecessary frippery.
The disc offers two audio options, Dolby 5.1 surround and PCM stereo. The PCM stereo is markedly superior in the brightness of its highs and in being more dynamic than the surround track, but its higher quality also reveals more echo resounding from Collins's vocals; this can be distracting, and it can also make it a bit difficult to understand the lyrics. The 5.1 surround mix, while less crystalline and more subdued, actually presents Collins's voice with greater immediacy, and it's easier to understand what she's singing and saying in this track. Listeners should give both a try before deciding which suits them better. The video presentation is in full frame, which is doubtless the way the program originally aired on television, and is pleasant and clean without being outstanding. It's a respectable TV-to-DVD visual transfer.
The extras, though few in number, are surprisingly meaty. There's a text biography of Collins that goes into a nice amount of detail about her early musical training and influences, as well as her development as an artist, and the discography is particularly impressive, since we are given the option of clicking on each album title to see the cover art and a track listing. Since even those who aren't already fans of Collins may well want to purchase some of her CDs after hearing this concert, this extra is an excellent way for the viewer to get a sense of the wide range of her work.
My only reservation about this enjoyable disc is that we scarcely get to see any of the Biltmore house itself. There are a few establishing shots of the mansion, and since the concert takes place in the house's dining room (really more of a banquet hall), we get to enjoy the ambiance of the three giant fireplaces, the antique tapestries, and the enormous chandeliers…but it really would have been nice to see more of this splendid setting.
Despite that one small quibble, though, I can wholeheartedly recommend this disc. It's the perfect accompaniment to Christmas celebrations or just quiet evenings of gift wrapping. Collins's many fans will definitely want to snap this up, but even those who haven't yet experienced her lovely voice will find this a delightful way to bring the holiday spirit into their homes.
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