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A Tapestry of Carols
Maddy Prior; The Carnival Band
rec. The Meeting House, Frenchay, Nr. Bristol, UK, February 1987. DDD.
Booklet with notes but no texts.
SAYDISC CD-SDL366 [51:05]

Experience Classicsonline

The Sans Day Carol [3:36]
In Dulci Jubilo [2:59]
God Rest You Merry Gentlemen [4:35]
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear [3:41]
The Holly and the Ivy [3:15]
The Coventry Carol [3:25]
The Angel Gabriel [2:46]
Angels from the Realms of Glory [3:11]
Infant Holy [1:27]
A Virgin Most Pure [5:15]
Unto Us a Boy is Born [2:56]
Rejoice and Be Merry [2:05]
Joseph Dearest [3:53]
Personent Hodie [2:55]
Sussex Carol: On Christmas Night [2:29]

As long as you’re not looking for authenticity – a pretty elusive commodity, anyway, when it comes to Christmas music, much of which has been rearranged and re-interpreted over and over again – you should find this CD enjoyable.

Many will have already encountered Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band, perhaps on their other Saydisc recording of hymns in the style of the gallery choirs whose demise Thomas Hardy records in his novels (CD-SDL383). Prior sings in the folk-like style which she developed with Steeleye Span and the band accompany her with a variety of instruments ancient and modern, including gittern, mandocello, cittern, tabors, basel trammel, tambourin provençal, Flemish bagpipes and shawm, to name but a few, all well recorded.

This recording was a follow-up to the recording of Christmas carols for BBC 2 television which Maddy Prior made with the Carnival Band in 1984, soon after their formation. If you’re expecting to hear them in full-blown style, you may be surprised that the programme opens with a comparatively restrained performance of the Sans Day carol, a traditional Cornish carol extolling the virtues of the holly, ‘the first tree in the greenwood.’ The next piece, In dulci jubilo, also receives a comparatively restrained performance; in fact, I didn’t think Maddy Prior’s voice particularly well suited to this 14th-century German piece.

The rhythmic performance of God rest ye merry gentlemen sees Prior and the band in something closer to what we have come to expect from them; though even here they don’t exactly pull out all the stops, they’ll almost certainly get your feet tapping. It came upon the midnight clear, a more reflective work, also lends itself well to Prior’s voice and the rhythmic accompaniment. The slight tinge of melancholy of her voice is well suited to the world-weary tone of the words, which contrast the two thousand years of wrong with the hopeful message of the Christmas angels and the promised Age of Gold.

The recorder introduction to The Holly and the Ivy, with subtle percussion accompaniment, is a minor work of art in itself; the rendition of the carol itself is excellent – soloist and accompaniment are well into their stride by this point: another foot-tapper.

The Coventry Carol (‘Bye, bye, lully, lullay’) lends itself to a wide variety of performances. Some stress the madness of ‘Herod the king in his raging’, but the version here emphasises the pathos of the event just as effectively. The glockenspiel accompaniment to the following Ding dong merrily on high and Prior’s tone of restrained exuberation lift the mood most effectively out of pathos. My only reservation is that I’m sure I’ve heard Prior render the refrain Hosanna in excelsis more unrestrainedly. Normally, I’d be scratching like mad on my critical slate when she adds an intrusive r to hosanna-r-in excelsis, but, of course, it’s absolutely in style here – effectively, it’s Maddy Prior’s trade-mark. The same is true of her less-than-clear enunciation of the Latin in Personent hodie. When she doesn’t repeat the intrusive r in Gloria in excelsis, the refrain of Angels from the realms of glory, I’m slightly disappointed.

The Angel Gabriel, with the instrumentalists joining in a quiet vocal background, evokes a mood of mystery, while the next piece, Angels from the realms of glory, as the notes explain, ‘somehow got changed from a French folk tune into a mixture of Cajun fiddle and New Orleans marching band.’ Anyway, it’s fun – in many ways this track is the highlight of the CD.

Infant Holy and A Virgin most pure return us to a more restrained style, though in the latter in particular the performers more than atone by the rhythmic quality which they impart to the music.

The instrumental introduction to Unto us a boy is born – recorders, gittern and glockenspiel – has a mysterious quality, leading into Prior’s almost other-worldly singing. Joseph dearest also receives a thoughtful performance, miles removed from McCreechs’s lively account of Prætorius’s setting of its German analogue, Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem on his superb reconstruction of a Lutheran Christmas Mass. I yield to none in my admiration of that Archiv CD (439 250-2 – see review) but Maddy Prior’s very different interpretation is very fine in its own terms.

By contrast, Rejoice and be merry and Personent hodie are more foot-tappers. The accompaniment and singing in Personent really capture the spirit of the renaissance dance-band in a manner reminiscent of David Munrow’s classic recording of Prætorius’s Dances from Terpsichore. The Sussex Carol rounds off the programme very effectively – another magical accompaniment to a lilting performance.

These performances may not be quite as lively as I had expected from Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band, but they are well worth acquiring for something very different from the usual Christmas Carol collection in the cathedral tradition. I wouldn’t ever want to be without the likes of King’s for Christmas – their Essential Carols on Decca 475 6655 offers an excellent 2-CD bargain – but I like this Saydisc recording, too. The inclusion of the texts would have made my enjoyment even greater.

Brian Wilson





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