Pope Benedict XVI: Alma Mater

Vatican City - Not many debut recording artists have the courage to make a concept album. But it would be fair to say that Pope Benedict XVI has ideological weight behind his Alma Mater, formed around the chants that have been intoned in St Peter’s Basilica for centuries.

The Pope’s Christmas album, released on November 29, is the first record to feature a singing pontiff and is likely to give the likes of Bob Dylan, Sting and Tori Amos — all hoping for seasonal success this year — a run for their money. Alma Mater could be an even bigger hit than Abba Pater, a 1999 record featuring John Paul II, Benedict’s successor, reciting the rosary to music.

The basic nucleus of the album may be austere and uncomplicated but not much else about Alma Mater is simple. It cannot be ignored that each of the participants was in a different place when the music was recorded: the Pope was preaching around the world, intermittently being recorded by Vatican Radio; the choir was in St Peter’s and the orchestra pouring out a veritable vat of syrupy effects (our Royal Philharmonic) was in Abbey Road studios.

The result is not quite an unholy mess but it comes close. Surprisingly, it is the lead vocalist, once nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler”, who impresses with a baritone that never barks and whose fatherly cadences cleave to his multilingual prayers with a gentle authority. Only when he actually sings (fleeting phrases in the Regina Coeli) do you experience that slightly distressing effect of standing in a pew next to the elderly relative who really should not be hooting along quite so loudly.

But what to make of the rest? Here is religious rite transposed into the key of “nu-spirituality” — if not a recognised musical genre then surely certain to become one. Crossover mezzo Katherine Jenkins plays this particular tune brilliantly; so does the successful composer Karl Jenkins. It is a sort of catch-all lump-in-the-throat sentimentality that works for everyone and no one. Quite the opposite notion from the Pope’s “either with us or against us” doctrine.

The lead composer, Simon Boswell, has successfuly distanced himself from some of the less Christian-sounding entries on his CV (soundtracks for Pornography: the Musical and Women Talking Dirty) to fashion suitably soupy harmonies and even some nods to world music (well, the Catholic Church has a broad congregation). All these sweeping phrases dramatically fade away whenever the Pope is introduced, a trick that works once, but might disappoint even the most faithful listener on its third or fourth appearance.

You will find almost exactly the same style employed for Gary Barlow’s latest project, the singer Camilla Kerslake, who will be purring her equally beatific ballads on this year’s Christmas Waitrose advertisements.

Perhaps that is appropriate in an age where the gospel of organic vegetables is preached almost as loudly as the New Testament.

I will stick to my usual seasonal messiah: the Doctor Who special.