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Enjoy a sophisticated Christmas with Renée

You don't have to hear the words "put the kettle on" or know anything about choo-choo train sets or have heard of Ireland's most talented copywriter, the late Catherine Donnelly-Sheerin, to know that nostalgia plays bigger at Christmas than at any other time of year.

Is there one among us who is not immune to the impossible mysteries of the season?

Indeed, just last week as I was stocking up on pork scratchings and Pot Noodles, my mind drifted back to a golden age long ago when plane-loads of Irish consumers would leave our shores every day for the discount retail outlets of Manhattan. It was a time before water charges. A time of prosperity. A time when a completed card of supermarket savings stamps might get you half-price hotel rooms on Broadway itself.

Before the Universal Social Charge there was universal socialising. And the people of Ireland excelled, roaming mid-town in giddy spirits like it was Tubbercurry on a fair day. Ah, the memories that came flooding back when I saw this new 13-track seasonal release by opera diva Renée Fleming (no relation of the bould Tommy, as far as I know).

Christmas in New York must surely be the most evocative album title since A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector. Never mind that Phil is languishing in chokey, Renée has the gifting season covered in snug, luxurious style. Well, at least with the elegant cover artwork by Carol Bobolts of Red Herring Design.

I almost didn't need to hear the music to experience the thrill of wading through Central Park snow to arrive at an Upper East Side soiree where canapes and champagne were almost as delicious as the company.

But hadn't the famous soprano also recorded Dark Hope, an album of songs by credible rock acts such as Arcade Fire, Willy Mason and Muse?

And the guests, including Rufus Wainwright and Gregory Porter, on this Christmas album are equally interesting.

Fleming could just as easily have had a career in jazz as in opera. But while the playing here is perfectly pitched, Renée doesn't always seem comfortable with her material. She duets brilliantly with Gregory Porter on Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and makes Sammy Cahn's The Christmas Waltz sound as if it was written for her.

Snowbound, the title track of Sarah Vaughn's 1963 album, is the perfect jam for Fleming and jazz vocalist Kurt Elling. In The Bleak Midwinter is delivered with stately poise while the Rob Moose arrangement accommodates Rufus Wainwright with graceful charm.

Wynton Marsalis adds magic to Winter Wonderland, but Fleming's clipped intonation feels slightly at odds with the band's effortless cool jazz playing.

Paul Simon's Love and Hard Times has the uninvolving feel of a vocal exercises class, despite Grant Stewart's saxophone.

Folk purists might quibble with Brad Mehldau's take on Sandy Denny's Who Knows Where the Time Goes but it's delightful.

Request this and the Cat With the Sack should approve.

HHHII


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