Christmas In Vienna (1993)

“There’ll be much mistletoeing and hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near…”

Diana Ross has always been an artist that crossed genre lines, but never was that more true than in the early 1990s.  She kicked off the decade near the top of the R&B charts, with the #4 hit “No Matter What You Do” (a duet with singer Al B. Sure!).  Next up came The Force Behind The Power album and “When You Tell Me That You Love Me,” a huge hit in the UK and a song that charted in the US on the Adult Contemporary listings.  Diana then hit the top 10 of the jazz album chart with her live recording Stolen Moments: The Lady Sings…Jazz And Blues.  Within the next few years, Miss Ross would also be a major force on the dance charts, with a remixed “Someday We’ll Be Together” hitting the top 10, and “Take Me Higher” at #1.  It’s safe to say, however, one place nobody ever expected to see Diana Ross would be on the classical charts.  However, in her true genre-jumping fashion, she ended up there in 1993.

Christmas In Vienna, is, like Stolen Moments, a live recording, this time of a December 23, 1992 concert in Vienna.  Also on the bill were world-famous opera tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras (who, along with Luciano Pavarotti, from The Three Tenors).  As the All Music Guide review states, “Christmas in Vienna is almost like a live Three Tenors album, only with Diana Ross taking the place of Luciano Pavarotti. That alone makes for quite a change, since Ross’ style of singing is decidedly different from Pavarotti’s, but she acquits herself well.”  Though the combination of Diana and two male opera singers might have seemed odd at the outset, it was incredibly successful; it took Miss Ross to a place she’d never been before — to #1 on the Classical Album chart, according to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography.  And not only was this album a global seller, it was also a television special and led to other “Christmas In Vienna” concerts featuring Domingo and assorted singers (including Dionne Warwick the next year).

For Diana Ross fans, certainly it was a pleasure getting some new Christmas material from the singer.  Amazingly, despite being a solo star for more than two decades, she hadn’t released a single holiday album in that time; her voice hadn’t graced popular carols since she released Merry Christmas with the Supremes back in 1965.  That alone makes this work a treat, but it’s also a pleasure hearing her sing so confidently alongside two of the most celebrated voices in the world.  Though Miss Ross isn’t featured on all of the 15 included tracks here, the popularity and longevity of the recording — and the uniqueness of the project — make it a worthy and important addition to her discography (because she’s only on half of the included tracks, I’ll only be writing about those on which she does appear).

***

Amazing Grace:   Diana’s performance of “Amazing Grace” from this show has become a celebrated part of her recording history; not only did she feature it on her Forever Diana box set, but it also re-appeared on her 1994 international holiday album, A Very Special Season.  It’s a great way for her “introduce” herself to the audience, since the hymn bridges the “gap” between the operatic sound of the tenors and Diana’s roots in soul and blues music.  Diana’s performance here is deeply, deeply felt; as her voice echoes through the concert hall, there’s a real, pure emotion that is extremely touching.  While the orchestra and choir sound “classical” in arrangement, there’s a lot of soul in Miss Ross’s performance; listen to her at 3:25 in, as she sings the line, “The sun forbear to shine” — there’s no denying that Diana is feeling this song.  Though she’s hitting some impressive high notes here, her voice never sounds weak or thin (as it had at times on Workin’ Overtime); instead there’s a round, full-bodied tone to her vocals.  This is an absolutely lovely performance; the thunderous, 30-second ovation from the crowd is proof that she’d easily won over the audience.

Carol Of The Drum:  This is Diana’s first chance to sing with one of the tenors, teaming up with José Carreras for this version of the Christmas classic (otherwise known as “The Little Drummer Boy”).  This is a fun listen, since it’s a song Miss Ross had sung on the Supremes holiday album almost 30 years earlier.  The arrangement here is brief, running less than three minutes, as each singer tackles a verse and then sing one final round together.  Diana’s verse is nice; her voice is sweet and crisp here, hitting the notes lightly but deliberately, almost as though she’s mimicking the beats of a drum.  Carreras beautifully handles the second verse, his strong and well-trained voice easily riding the melody.  Together, the two singers mesh well; their styles are admittedly quite different, which limits the chemistry between the two, but this isn’t exactly “Endless Love,” either.  This is meant to be a pleasing, joyous holiday performance, and that’s exactly what it is.

White Christmas:  Diana’s second duet teams her with Plácido Domingo; this is also a tune she recorded with the Supremes, and was one of the best recordings on that album.  It’s one of the best on this album too; Miss Ross has a little more melody to work with here than on “Carol Of The Drum,” and though the song is paced really quickly (personally, I like the slower, dreamier tone of the Supremes version), she sounds lovely again, never oversinging and keeping the memorable melody and lyrics the star here.  Mr. Domingo also sounds lovely on the tune; he doesn’t sing as much on this song as Carreras did on “Carol…,” but he and Diana sound quite nice together when they’re singing in harmony.  The fault here, I think lies in the abrupt ending; there’s not really a “big finish” here, and the already-short song just kind of comes to a stop, but it’s still a nice performance and a treat to hear her sing this particular song again.

It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year:  Diana performs this upbeat tune solo, and it’s another quick one; she, the orchestra, and the choir race through it in less than two-and-a-half minutes.  It’s cut in a rather high key again, and though Miss Ross manages to hit all the notes, she’s certainly reaching here; her “…of the year” at 1:19 just barely makes it.  There’s no denying that Diana’s soprano is bell-like and clear, which suits the music well, but she doesn’t sound particularly powerful here.  Had the song been in a slightly lower key, it would have been a better showcase for her vocals; that said, maybe this doesn’t really need to be a showcase for anything more than the classic holiday song, which is what it is.

If We Hold On Together:  A very interesting inclusion in the concert; this, of course, is not a holiday song.  This is the theme song to the animated film The Land Before Time, a song that had been an enormous international hit for Miss Ross, and was later included on her 1991 album The Force Behind The Power.  I’m not sure why it’s here, except that being a popular singer, Diana probably wanted to sing one of her hits, and I’m sure concert organizers wanted it, too; having the song on the CD probably helped global sales, given the popularity of the single in so many countries.  What makes this a unique listen for fans is, of course, the almost classical arrangement here; it certainly sounds far less “pop ballad” here, given the choir and orchestra backing her up, and it’s also nearly a minute shorter than the recorded version.  Diana sounds great; this is right in her comfort zone, since she’d probably performed this song live hundreds of times, and her voice is rich and full.  There are many, many singers who have trouble controlling their voices when singing live, resulting in a wobbly, often off-key sound; Diana Ross is not one of the singers, especially on a deeply-felt ballad like this.  There’s an enormous control in her performance here; she is pitch-perfect and clear, allowing her voice to “spread” open and fill the spaces in the arrangement without resorting to vocal “tricks” or unnecessary ad-libs.  Her work is especially impressive on the first verse, during which the melody jumps notes quickly; the lightness in Diana’s voice makes it seem effortless.  It’s a recorded performance like this that really proves what a talented vocalist Diana Ross is; at nearly 50 years old, her voice doesn’t seem to have suffered much wear at all, and she sounds as good live as she does in the studio.

Medley:  The briskness of the previous songs is made up with this 13-minute medley featuring all three singers.  This is really the “centerpiece” of the entire concert, allowing time for the seasoned pros to play off of each other and to allow their voices to blend in a way they hadn’t thus far.  The medley begins with the gentle “O Tannenbaum” before quickly segueing into a stunning rendition of “O Holy Night” — a song which really allows the tenors a chance to show off their vocal chops and for Diana’s lovely soprano to sweetly lead the choir of angelic background voices.  A spirited “Jingle Bells” is next, with Diana throwing in a “Hey!” at 5:35 that sounds far more Detroit than Vienna; there’s something extremely natural about her vocal here that’s refreshing to hear.  To tenors are certainly in their element on the snippet of “La Virgen Lava Pañales,” and in a nice surprise, Miss Ross sings a bit in a foreign tongue, nicely and quietly harmonizing with the men a bit.  She takes the lead on “O Little Town Of Bethlehem,” her voice delicately handling the melody and nicely hitting a high note on “deep” at 8:50 that’s as pretty as anything else she’s sung the whole show.  When the men take over, it becomes clear that Diana is far more suited to the simple hymn; they seem to oversing it a bit.  “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle” and “Joy To The World” round out the medley; the latter song features Miss Ross singing mainly in unison with the tenors, though she does get some solo lines.  The crowd gives the trio a very long ovation, which is well-deserved; all three really have moments in which they shine during the medley (which is paced extremely well, as it never feels like it runs more than ten minutes).  There are a few instances in which Miss Ross’s voice seems a little overpowered by the louder voices of the men, but she still manages to hold her own well and display some nice singing.

Stille Nacht:  A quiet, gentle way to end the concert, each singer takes a turn on this version of “Silent Night,” with Miss Ross coming in around 2:18 and picking up the lyrics in English.  Her vocal here is very low-key, taking the words of the song literally by singing as if she were putting a baby to sleep.  Thus, this becomes a lullaby to the audience, and it’s a simple, dignified finish.

***

It’s hard to “judge” a work like this against the rest of the Diana Ross discography, being that 1) it’s a live recording, 2) the songs are classic holiday favorites, and 3) this is such a different endeavor for Miss Ross.  In the end, while there may not be any powerhouse vocal performances or major surprises, she displays a real class and elegance, and shows what a gifted live vocalist she is.  As mentioned before, many of these performances require skillful control and pitch-perfect singing; these are songs that everyone in the world knows, so it would immediately be apparent if Miss Ross were to lose her way.  Of course, she doesn’t; she proves herself, once again, capable of rising to any challenge, and the success of this recording and television special seem well-deserved.  So instead of giving this a “Final Analysis,” I’ll just say it definitely warrants a few plays this Christmas season!

Choice Cuts:  “Amazing Grace,” “If We Hold On Together,” the Medley segment

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About Paul

Album-by-album, track-by-track, a look at the entire Diana Ross discography...
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19 Responses to Christmas In Vienna (1993)

  1. Mikel Patrik says:

    Great review…but you didn’t give her Amazing Grace its due. Other than ’87’s “99 and a half”, which hadn’t showed up on CD yet when she did this concert, Ross hadn’t recorded a spiritual yet — and she knocked it out of the park. By the time she got to the third verse, with the children’s choir behind her, she was matching anything she’d ever done. It literally brought me to tears that night, and stands as one of my favorite versions of the song (with Mahalia Jackson and Tramaine Hawkins, two of the greatest gospel singers ever.

    • Paul says:

      Hey Mikel! It is a great performance, for sure. Personally, I enjoy her “We Shall Overcome” even more than “Amazing Grace” — I wish there was a recording of “We Shall Overcome” for us to enjoy!!

  2. Dianarossboss says:

    I am very proud of our lady for this album. She was brave to go up against these to vocal giants. She held her own. She gave us the classic Diana voice. Diana was redefining herself…delving into any area that reestablished her classy, elegant sophisticated sound. With the last few albums Diana gave us performances that proved she could still sing and sing with power , feeling and wetness.

    Great album for me. LOVE AMAZING GRACE and believe that after people heard that performance everyone sat up and began to take notice of Diana again! (even if record sales did not indicated that).

    This album is a Christmas standard for me!

  3. markus says:

    “Two Tenors and a Supreme”, as my cousin affectionately refers to this TV special. 🙂 Excellent review and a good decision to forgoe the rating- this really deserves to be in a special place of its’ own in Diana’s canon.

    Because PBS airs this virtually every year, its probably overall the most-seen (in the US) of any of Diana’s TV appearances; fortunately, it shows her in the most unlikely but ultimately very favorable light.
    I actually love “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” but she’s certainly reaching. Thank goodness she’s shown up and is fully invested.

    Funny story (although it was annoying at the time): one of the first years this aired (1993 or 1994), I was watching it with a friend. Whenever it would go to a break, as usual you would have the good people at PBS making their entreaties for contributions to keep public television going.
    Anyway, the guy speaking proceeded to pay some bizarrely backhanded compliments to Diana when discussing the three participants! “Think of the amazing places these artists have come from…Barcelona!…Madrid! (awkward pause)…Detroit!”
    He then went on to list multiple accomplishments from Carreras and Domingo in detail, followed by a pause, and a quickly added “and think of all the great things Diana Ross has done.” This went on ALL EVENING!!! Jerk. 😉

  4. wayne2710 says:

    I agree with you not rating this one Paul,it’s in a rating all on it’s own. What particularly pleased me about this night was not only did she hold her own, she looked totally AMAZING doing it ! Incidentally the show was also simulcast live on the radio and the radio broadcast lasted longer – they came back on and sang the medley over again, but second time around Diana didn’t flub her lines and sang Jingle and not Zingle.
    Following it’s success I really wish they had continued with cd releases of their follow up concerts, especially the show from Budapest where she sang We Shall Overcome. There are some terrific clips on You Tube from these shows.

    • Paul says:

      Wish I could have heard it live on the radio — how exciting to hear a performance like this AS it was happening! I’m with you on “We Shall Overcome” — she is amazing on that song and I wish there was a recording of it!

  5. spookyelectric says:

    I never knew about We Shall Overtime I’m ashamed to admit. Wow. Lovely lovely version of Autumn Leaves from that Budapest concert too that I just heard for the first time. Shame she never recorded a full studio version of that.

    Got to say I never really paid much mind to the Christmas In Vienna album to be honest. Of course Amazing Grace is wonderful, spine-tingling – I particularly love the wordless vocalising Diana does after that huge dramatic fanfare intro. Mainly though I found the mismatch of voices a little too off-putting. She does sound great on O Little Town Of Bethlehem though – much more connected than on the Making Spirits Bright studio version.

    • wayne2710 says:

      There’s a studio recording of Autumn Leaves on the Supremes Rarities collection ‘Let the Music Play’ Spooky released about 4 years ago. It’s sort of sweet ! I guess this is what I was trying to say in my comments for Stolen Moments, I really wish she would perform more standards and ditch some of the ‘hits’ from her shows.

      • spookyelectric says:

        Good in-depth Diana knowledge Wayne! I’ll have to check that out.

        Yes Diana doing some standards beyond the Billie catalogue would be great – I did a youtube search for her various concerts with Domingo & Carreras in the 90s and there were some lovely, interesting selections beyond the Christmas stuff.

        I particularly like this take on Sinatra’s A Day In The Life Of A Fool.

    • Paul says:

      Spooky — I agree, it’s easy to “forget” about this one, since you don’t really think about it except for around the holidays, and since it was released on Sony Classical, it’s often not listed as part of her discography. Still, I like that it’s part of her collection — it’s another nice demonstration of her versatility and willingness to stretch herself.

  6. markus says:

    lovely performance right there. And she’s absolutely gorgeous there! 🙂

    I think it’s almost that time-

    @Paul- take us to that place…higher… 😉

    • Paul says:

      lol Markus — I know — getting through “The Remixes” and “A Very Special Season” will probably annoy a lot of people — but I gotta be thorough 🙂 I’ve already written “Take Me Higher” though and I CAN’T WAIT for everyone to read and comment!!!!!

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  9. bokiluis says:

    The 1992 Holiday season was quite a wondrous time. Still riding high off of the international success of my favorite solo album, “The Force Behind the Power” (tied with “The Boss” of course), I was extremely well connected to Diana’s career, even befriending one of her background vocalists on her “Here and Now” tour, Quintin Anderson. But somehow the premiere PBS airing of the “Christmas in Vienna” special nearly escaped me. I was blessed and fortunate enough to attend the “Stolen Moments” concert in New York on December 4th. So what a double whammy it was to have not one, but, two Diana Ross television specials in December 1992! (The soundtrack to these specials were staggered in release). Though PBS aired “Christmas in Vienna” internationally and domestically, Sony Classical would release the soundtrack the following year. It was a brilliant stroke because for fans it insured that the special would also air again.
    Because I was blessed and well connected around that time, even if I could have…I’m not sure I would have attended the concert in Vienna. The audience was not your typical Diana Ross audience, instead attracting the Two Tenors’ fanbase instead. Of course, some Diana fans were also probably fans of The Three Tenors, but, this evening drew more of an opera crowd.
    I was a bit nervous. Streisand had released her “Classical Barbara” album to a very mixed reception. If La Streisand was slightly out of her element, just how would Diana fare amongst arguably two of the most famous opera singers in the world. Diana had shown no ability to handle operatic phrasing. I needn’t have worried because producer, Michael Glotz tailored the vocal arrangements to compliment her voice. The two sterling highlights for me were her magnificent read on “Amazing Grace” and the more Diana-like “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. “Amazing Grace” remains a tour de force that was worthy of a Grammy nomination.
    I would later get an opportunity to see Diana with The Two Tenors in Budapest. Her work with them was so successful, they would go on a mini-international tour including Budapest, Osaka, London and Taipei among other cities.
    The DVD was finally released almost a decade later, but, well worth the wait. It gets an annual viewing in my home each holiday season!

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