“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