There is a lot of competition for this winter's Christmas market. Andrea Bocelli, Faryl Smith, and even Sting are trying for a successful Christmas release and Hayley Westenra may have difficulty selling her album amongst them, especially with new golden girl Faryl Smith. But Winter Magic will sound different to other classical crossover efforts, as this album sounds as if it would have been released by Eva Cassidy if she were still alive. It is the exact opposite of Sarah Brightman's overblown seasonal offering last year, and focuses on the peacefulness that Christmas can bring.
Although Westenra has released a Christmas album of sorts before (a New Zealand release called My Gift To You), her previous effort was inconsistent and rushed out in a matter of months, though it was certainly acceptable for somebody her age (she was fourteen at the time). It is of no big surprise that Westenra felt that it wasn't the best she could come up with for the holidays and started to work on this album earlier in the year. The fact that Christmas albums are often pushed out to capitalise on people's willingness to empty their pockets towards the big day has never been much of a secret, but Westenra's interpretation of the season is thoughtful and she has clearly spent time and effort on the album.
The strength of this release lies in Westenra's rounded idea of how Christmas should sound, and then remaining loyal to that conception. The arrangements are reigned in to often simple guitar and string combinations (with the help of ever faithful violin player, Fiona Pears) and Westenra has picked a wide variety of songs from the Christmas repertoire, including four of her own compositions. Every song sounds different to the other (something that previous Westenra albums have struggled with) and she relishes the different lyrics and tempos. Her vocal is as clear as ever, and is as able to make standards like 'Silent Night' even more angelic, as she is to make a song like 'Sleigh Ride' immense fun (in a restrained kind of way).
The biggest revelation of this album is the demonstrated growth of Westenra as an artist. Not only in understanding how a body of work comes together, but also as a songwriter. There are four songs here that she has co-written, and they are among the strongest tracks on the album. The stunning 'Christmas Morning' epitomises the atmosphere of Christmas for a child and the louder 'Peace Shall Come' shows her talent for more poppy compositions. The piano led 'All With You' also has a catching chorus and the stirring 'On the Wings of Time' focuses more on instrumental composition rather than lyrical.
As with any Christmas album, there are many songs to be expected but Westenra gives them all new life. The aforementioned 'Silent Night' is a fine example, but 'Carol of the Bells', 'The Little Drummer Boy' and 'The Coventry Carol' are excellent highlights of the album. She performs a lovely vocal on 'The Christmas Song' too, but she had already recorded it on her previous Christmas album so it may seem redundant to loyal Westenra fans. Less heard Christmas songs 'Winter's Dream' and Joni Mitchell's 'River' are also welcome additions; the choral clips on 'Winter's Dream' are particularly wonderous.
Winter Magic is one of the strongest Christmas releases and is recommended to those that like to relax and sit by a fire but should be avoided if Christmas music is something you want to party to. It avoids the repetition of Enya and the campness of Brightman and most importantly, it offers something different along with the familiar. This album will definitely be cherished by Westenra's loyal fanbase as it serves up everything her image stands for: the humble, the pure, the beauty and the elegant.