During the Middle Ages Christmas developed into
the most popular feast of the church calendar. From early on it
was closely connected to old, partly pre-Christian traditions.
That is reflected in the music written for this time of the year.
This disc presents a number of vocal and instrumental pieces,
either sacred or profane, which are associated with Christmastide.
The disc starts with the earliest piece, dating
from the late 13th century. It is sung in English here, but is
probably French in origin. The international dissemination of
songs is one of the features of Christmas music. The German songs,
for instance, are well-known outside Germany. This is partly due
to the fact that they were used by composers in sacred music.
'In dulci jubilo' is definitely one of the most popular in and
We also get a number of French 'carols' here;
many of them were used by French composers of the 18th century,
like Daquin and Balbastre, to write variations for organ. Some
of these carols were also harmonised for instrumental ensemble
by the French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Many of these
have also become part of the international repertoire for Christmas.
A part of the English repertoire on this disc
is connected to the turn of the year rather than Christmas. In
particular the anonymous 'The old year now away is fled', set
to the tune of 'Greensleeves' and published by Henry Playford
in the late 17th century, and another anonymous song, 'Drive the
cold winter away', are evidence of this.
In his programme notes John Merryweather specifically
pays attention to the role of the waits in English towns and especially
during the Cristmas season. This explains the choice of pieces
and also the way this repertoire is performed. Like the waits
their present-day namesakes use wind instruments: a consort of
recorders, cornett, shawm, bagpipe, curtal, hurdy-gurdy, sackbut
and rackett. In addition plucked instruments - cittern, guitar,
lute and theorbo - are used.
The result is a truly engaging and highly entertaining
disc. Anthony Barton, Tim Bayley, William Marshall, James Merryweather,
Ian Richardson and Robin Jeffrey give very imaginative and technically
assured performances, whether on the loud wind instruments - like
shawm and rackett - or the softer recorders. They are joined by
Richard Wistreich, who probably has not the most beautiful voice
one can imagine, but sings this repertoire in an appropriate manner
and merges well with the ensemble. Fortunately he doesn't fall
into the trap of trying to make too much of the more popular items.
If you look for a disc with music which is only
devoted to the Biblical message of Christmas, then you should
choose something different. But if you are interested in the traditions
around Christmas and their traces in music, this disc is not to
be missed. I don't know if it will drive the cold winter away,
but it certainly will warm the heart.
The booklet contains a list of the instruments
used and informative programme notes, but no lyrics.
Johan van Veen
see also review
by Em Marshall