Truly, this is what Christmas is made of.
We were bundled up against the cold in hats and scarves and velvet, huddled together in a tiny, ornate, ancient church in the middle of deepest Moravia.
Kostel Panny Marie Sněžné, the fairy-tale chapel is called. Our Lady of the Snows. And there she was – resplendent in a floor-length white gown with high collars and sleeves extending into fingerless gloves, her black hair pulled back into a no-nonsense bun, yet the secret smile playing around her lips belying the humility behind the other-worldly appearance.
A decade had passed since I’d first heard her voice – rich, evocative, heavily accented with those same Finnish intonations that once inspired Tolkien to write high elvish. And now, like a templar’s vision she stood before me, alone on a Medieval altar, breath steaming in the still winter air as pure, powerful notes of innocence and experience ricocheted and reverberated around the architecture.
Yes, I admit, there was more than a little idolatry at play, yet who could blame me? Tarja Turunen’s voice was the catalyst that not only convinced me to train my own classical voice, but led me into the very heart of symphonic metal – an influence that has never since let go.
There was a time, after the news that Nightwish had parted ways, when I believed I would never see her perform. Since then, however, she has carved out quite the career for herself, still headlining metal festivals around Europe, while also finding solace and celebration in her classical and even sacred roots.
It was the latter that we were treated to on that perfect snowy night, in that glorious gilded sanctuary. If there was ever any doubt in my mind as to whether such an intimate, acoustic concert would do justice to the expectations I’d built over the years, they were melted away by the first pure, piercing note of David Popper’s Ave Maria.
That startling rendition of the appropriately Czech composer’s offering sent the first of many shivers down our spines that night. In total, six stunning arrangements of Ave Maria were presented to us that night – some that I knew well, like Schubert’s classic, and others that enchanted me for the first time that night, such as Caccini’s tumbling devotional.
Perhaps most breathtaking of all the invocations of Mary, however, was Tarja’s own offering. Despite being sung in unwavering Italian, the composition is an unmistakably Nordic sister to its classical predecessors, moving from haunting minor verses to rich, ever-building crescendos. Tarja performed the piece with heartfelt dedication, and my heart pounded beneath my thick fur coat.
The evening was not all solemn devotion, however. Interspersed with the Ave Marias were more unlikely Christmas classics such as Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, performed against jolly, almost polka-like backing, and Nat King Cole’s Christmas Song. While I am not certain that the modern tunes did justice to Tarja, they made for some traditional festivity amidst intense sacred music.
Alongside her take on the old crooners, I found myself swept up in a Nordic flurry once again by the dark, delicate Finnish carol Varpunen Jouluaamuna. To me the track was instantly evocative of a dark yet snow-covered Northern landscape, its bleakness punctuated with sacred starlight and candles burning in distant windows.
And then at last, when we were fully under her spell, Tarja dropped the moment I’d longed for every Christmas since I was fifteen: a live performance of Walking in the Air, each long note effervescing with magic potential on the still night air, rising and rising into an almost unbearable state of wintery perfection.
I will not deny that I cried.