Although the CD bins are stuffed with the annual avalanche of Christmas recordings, my recommendations for last-minute stocking stuffers for classically minded friends are two new albums that feature female voices singing, well, like angels. Renée Fleming possesses what many vocal connoisseurs consider the most sumptuous soprano around-a judgment with which anyone who hears her in the soprano-besotted music of Richard Strauss is certain to agree. Ms. Fleming’s latest album, Strauss Heroines , with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach (Decca 289 466 314-2), is, in terms of sheer beauty of sound, almost too much of a good thing. By way of previewing her eagerly awaited performance as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier , which opens at the Met in January, the American diva can be heard here in the Act 1 monologue scene, as well as the ecstatic trio and finale of Act 3. The only thing not totally believable about her beautifully nuanced portrayal of the sad, noble adulteress is that I can imagine how Octavian could leave such a delicious milk bath of a voice for Sophie, even when the latter is as prettily sung as she is here by Barbara Bonney. (Susan Graham is the splendid Octavian.) Nobody composed floater music like Strauss, and when Fleming soars away in one of his high-flying, horizonless passages-which she does in these scenes, as well as in the Act 1 duet from Arabella and the closing mirror scene from Capriccio -it’s a magic-carpet ride you never want to get off.
The radiant Ms. Bonney takes the center spotlight-along with the countertenor Andreas Scholl-in Pergolesi: Stabat Mater , an album of three works by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi that are ostensibly devoted to the mournful mysteries of the Virgin Mary, but are in fact devoted to showcasing the capacity of certain human voices to spin out the most exquisitely turned lamentations in seamless legato ( Stabat Mater , followed by two Salve Regina s, in F minor and in A minor; with Christophe Rousset conducting the ensemble Les Talens Lyriques; Decca 289 466 134-2). The famous Stabat Mater became nearly as popular as Cats in the 18th century, and hearing this performance of the delicately sorrowing work, one can understand why. The thin but ethereally pure soprano of Ms. Bonney and the woody, wonderfully affectless alto of Mr. Scholl don’t so much entwine as melt into each other. The lean, piercing lines of Pergolesi, who was the Keats of composers (he died at the age of 26), make one realize, with a shock, how much we’ve lost on the level of sheer melody, when the most popular tune of our time has become that awful Andrew Lloyd Webber yowl called “Memory.”