At this time of year, it’s easy to write off music as tacky or overly-sentimental, especially when the shops are blasting out Slade and Chris de Burgh as though there’s been nothing new since the 70s. Here at Fresh On The Net, we’ve quarantined all the Christmas-themed songs so that listeners who are feeling the seasonal spirit can indulge, while those of a ‘Bah-Humbug’ disposition can avoid them entirely.
Whichever side of the fence you sit on in the run up to Christmas Eve, there comes a moment when even the most die-hard refuser will pull a cracker and mutter a Merry Christmas. Thankfully, in Prayer To A Snowflake, UK-based classical-crossover artist Mary-Jess has released an album that cuts through the cynicism and provides a sublime selection of seasonal songs. Whether you’re looking for something to play when the in-laws come round for turkey, or a playlist for romantic evenings in front of the fire when all the crazy-madness is over, this could be your new top choice for the holidays, writes Flo Baniggan.
Mary-Jess catapulted to international attention when she won a singing competition live on Chinese TV, in front of 70 million people. Her popularity in China continues, which is why her website blends text in English and Mandarin. Back at home, she is known to TV viewers as the voice of the theme to Downton Abbey. That’s quite a CV, but behind it all is a crystal-clear voice, perfect phrasing and deliciously emotional delivery. Add to that the writing skills and musicianship to create seasonal songs which sit comfortably alongside traditional standards on this album, and there can be no doubt that Mary-Jess’s success is well earned and deserved.
Setting the scene with two traditional carols, Prayer To A Snowflake ticks the box as something to please the vicar. Silent Night may have been done a million times, but Mary-Jess tingles the spine with her precise soprano, produced with the acoustics of a vaulted chapel. Similarly stripped-back and simple, In The Bleak Midwinter warms the heart. Grab a cup of hot chocolate and gather the little ones around to create the holiday memories we all crave.
Christmas is a time for couples, and I Fell In Love With A Snowman provides the theme-song for falling in love this year. Softly reminiscent of fun in the snow, this track will have everyone wrapping up warm and pulling their significant other out to play like kids. Hold On To Me continues the romantic theme, joining Mary-Jess’s charmingly engaging vocals in musical-theatre-ballad style with Jaden Cornelious’s rich tenor.
Opening with acoustic guitar, In December reveals Mary-Jess’s country style. A consummate story-teller through her song, Mary-Jess paints vivid mind-pictures of winter people: “…wearing crimson and evergreen” and pain: “I see you in the dark, all bruised and broken”. The story-telling continues as When Summer Comes creates a soundscape of loneliness. Exploring the relatable experience of break-up at holiday time, “I’m finding it hard to sleep alone, Table for one all on my own” Mary-Jess reaches out to anyone facing the festive season newly-single.
Inserted between these tracks, the story of Christmas is told through the eyes of the biblical Mary, from magnificence and submission in The Angel Gabriel, to fear and and confusion in the classical-pop ballad Breath of Heaven. Simple arrangements support Mary-Jess’s vocals – controlled and exquisitely expressive – every note perfectly placed.
Rhydian is one of the X-Factor’s success stories. Breaking the mould of the popular artist with his classical style when he appeared in 2007, he strides across the boundaries of pop, classical and musical theatre, maintaining the integrity of his own sound. Performing a duet with Rhydian is likely to expose the weakness in any partner, so it’s a testament to Mary-Jess’s technique and talent that their voices blend effortlessly throughout The Sound Of Christmas. This is no trick of a clever producer; each singer maintains a refreshingly natural range and pitch within the mix, providing beautifully blended harmonies that beg to be heard in live performance.
Quirkily titled, closing track Prayer To A Snowflake brings something fresh to the seasonal catalogue. Easily the stand-out piece of a stand-out album, Mary-Jess’s juxtaposition of Chinese musicality and classical European vocals creates an addictively melodic offering. This deserves to become a seasonal standard.