Hayley Westenra shot to attention five years ago at the age of 16. Since then she has released seven albums into various national and international territories and contributed to a dozen others, out of which two permutations of greatest hits compilations have also been gleaned.
River of Dreams is the first such compendium targeted at the UK market and if you are a fan of the still-young New Zealander, you'll know what to expect here and, more than likely, you'll be more than satisfied with what you get. Initially touted as a classical soprano, Westenra quickly (and wisely) moved away from the operatic towards a more eclectic repertoire to showcase her distinctively flutey, helium-high, gravity-free, crystal-sharp, emotion-free vocals.
Sensibly, the classical element is downplayed and disguised here, not least in the title track where new-age lyrics are layered over a heavily re-arranged version of Winter from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and in Never Say Goodbye, which re-works Ravel's Pavane to wistfully watery effect. The approach to Puccini's O mio babbino caro, Bach's Ave Maria (one of three new tracks on the album) and Karl Jenkins's Benedictus all err on the side of botox-smooth textures (such as they are).
The other new material includes album closer Now is the Hour, adapted from a tradition Maori tune, and Fleetwood Mac's Songbird, popularised more recently by Eva Cassidy, on which Westenra is pleasantly airy and clearly away with the dewdrop-drunk faeries.
If the epic American folk song Shenandoah loses much of its heart-stopping grandeur, it gains in places from Westenra's trademark brittleness, as does the traditional Irish gem Danny Boy, and the cover of the Enya-penned May It Be from The Lord of the Rings' soundtrack. The same cannot be said for Amazing Grace which has the most peculiar vocal tick 2'55" in that launches itself out of the speakers at you like a Banshee on heat.
In truth, this is a critic-proof album. With machine-tooled, nothing-left-to-chance production, on its own terms it succeeds, and it will undoubtedly sell by the van load this Christmas. Whether it deserves to, on its singular musical merits, is another matter altogether. --Michael Quinn
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