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Wolcum Yule: Celtic and British Songs and Carols
Trad. English: Awake, and join the cheerful choir*
Trad. Irish: Good people all*
Trad. Irish: The seven rejoices of Mary*
John TAVENER: The Lamb
Anon. 17th century: A Scots lilt*
Trad. Scottish: Balulalow*
Richard Rodney BENNETT: Balulalow
Trad. English: The holly and the ivy
Trad. Scottish: The Reel of Tullochgorum*
Trad. English: I saw three ships*
Peter MAXWELL DAVIES: A Calendar of Kings (first recording)
Trad. Irish: Air: Lá fuar geimhreadh* (On a cold winterís day)
Trad. Irish: An teicheadh go hÉigipt* (Flight into Egypt)
Geoffrey BURGON: A god, and yet a man? (First recording)
Henry VIII: Grene growith the holly
Trad. Welsh: Wel, dymaír borau gorau* (Behold, here is the best morning)
Trad. English: The Cherry Tree Carol*
Trad. Cornish: Can wassel* (Wassail Song)
Benjamin BRITTEN: A New Year Carol*
Anonymous 4 (Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner, Johanna Maria Rose)
*With Andrew Lawrence-King (Irish harp, baroque harp, psaltery)
Rec. March 21-25 2003 at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, California DDD
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 907325 [66í27"]


This is the third and, in view of their imminent disbanding, perhaps the last Christmas CD from Anonymous 4. I missed their second such disc, Legends of St. Nicholas (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907232) but greatly admire its predecessor, On Yoolis Night (HMU 907099). Let me say straightaway that anyone familiar with either of those CDs, or indeed any other by the group can rest assured that their high standards of performance and practical scholarship are fully maintained in this new release.

As well as the vocal items there are three instrumental solos from Andrew Lawrence-King, one played on each of the three instruments he employs in this programme. There is nice variety in his solos, ranging from the gentle A Scots lilt to the toe-tapping Reel of Tullochgorum. Elsewhere the accompaniments he provides to several of the vocal numbers unfailingly enhance the vocal line.

There is much singing of great beauty. One small cavil, however. Just occasionally I felt the music required a more robust approach. This is particularly the case with the very first track, Awake, and join the cheerful choir. The notes tell us that the carol, a gallery carol, "probably created quite a robust impression." Not here! Indeed, I wonder if any gallery carol has ever received so beautiful a performance Ė but does this match the spirit?

However, for the most part chastely beautiful singing fits the music perfectly. Among the gems are An teicheadh go hÉigipt (track 13), an Irish carol, sung in its original language. Itís so free rhythmically and melodically that it sounds like an improvisation yet the setting has a dark and plangent beauty that is memorable. There are also carols in Welsh, a lovely, flowing melody (track 16) and in Cornish (track 18).

One surprise is The holly and the ivy where the tradition refrain ("O the rising of the sun") is nowhere to be heard. Instead what we are used to as the first verse becomes the refrain.

Although most of the music here speaks to us from many centuries ago there are five contemporary items also. Those by Benjamin Britten and John Tavener need little introduction and some may also have heard Richard Rodney Bennettís carol before. However, I have never heard the Tavener sung by high voices only. This treatment is most effective, investing Tavenerís harmonies with their full piquancy and making the carol more than ever a "Song of Innocence." The carol by Peter Maxwell Davies is brand new, having been partly commissioned by Anonymous 4 and first performed by them in November 2002. It is a spare, austere but very subtle and well-varied setting of a recent poem by George Mackay Brown; a Hebridean poet whose texts I think Davies has set before. This is not an easy listen but it is most imaginative and well worth repeated hearing. It sounds extremely taxing but is rendered with consummate skill by Anonymous 4. The Geoffrey Burgon item is, like the Maxwell Davies, receiving its first recording here. It is more accessible than its companion. Though effective, I donít find it quite as arresting as the Maxwell Davies.

The release is comprehensively documented with texts and translations in German, French and English. There is a short introductory essay and succinct notes on each carol. Clearly this CD is the product of considerable research and it may be considered definitive. However, there is never a feeling that this is a dry academic project. This is a calming, tranquil celebration of the festive season and a welcome alternative to much of our usual Christmas musical fare. Indeed, some may consider it an antidote!

This is a Christmas disc for the connoisseur, I think, and it is strongly recommended as such.

John Quinn


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