Sacrum Mysterium - A Celtic Christmas Vespers
Meredith Hall (soprano)
Ensemble Le Nef/Sylvain Bergeron
Apollo’s Fire/Jeanette Sorrell (harpsichord)
 rec. 12-14 December 2011, St Paul’s Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Full texts and translations included
Detailed track-listing at end of review
Bonus DVD with extracts from performance [21:00]
AVIE-AV2269 [69:04]
The concept of this album, as explained in the generous and informative notes is a blending of the ancient celebration of the Celts at the Winter Solstice and the traditional Christian story of Christmas; both about the coming of light and hope. Jeanette Sorrell, the musical director of Apollo’s Fire, has brought together medieval Vespers of St. Kentigern (Patron Saint of Glasgow) with pagan and Christian carols, popular tunes from 17th-century Welsh and Scottish manuscripts for lute and harp. This celebration was premiered last year at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio and extracts from that concert are included in the bonus DVD.
Apollo’s Fire (aka The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra) takes its name from Apollo the Classical god of sun and music. Founded by conductor and harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell in 1992 the ensemble is dedicated to the performance of 17th and 18th century music using period instruments. Several of their previous discs have been reviewed here but this is a departure by going much further back in time. They are joined by Montreal’s early music group Le Nef, established in 1991, whose CD The Battle of Killiecrankie was much liked by Gary Higginson.
Soprano Meredith Hall has previously recorded Robert Burns’ songs with the latter group. My love is like a sweet sweet rose is on ATMA ACD22336 or stream from Naxos Music Library). She has also sung on late Seventeenth century discs for Naxos so the pedigree of these artists is considerable which they demonstrate throughout this impressive recital.
I played the DVD first to get a feel of the performance and I recommend this approach. In the haunting Processional Oikan ayns Bethlehem introduced with the pipes and band Meredith Hall sings whilst the choir process in time through the audience. The mood changes with the lively gig Duan Nollaig very well sung and played, complete with much stamping of feet by the fiddler! We then get the Vespers of St Kentigern solemn and movingly performed. The spirits are lifted with Alleluia and an instrumental Irish jig The Road to Lisdoonvarna energetic and uplifting.
Offertory and Carols commence with Veni veni Emmanuel (O Come O Come Emmanuel) sung as plainchant with first male only, then women only before they combine which is very effective. Meredith Hall returns for the lively Nowell, Nowell, Tydings Trew accompanied by Jesse Blumberg, baritone. The next carol Noël nouvelet, familiar to me as the tune of the Easter hymn Now the green blade rises, is up-tempo as is Come, My Children Dere a Scottish carol which would have suited Kathleen Ferrier. I’m less sure about the way they sing the Sussex Carol which to my ears was anemic, very well executed as it is. The players of Le Nef complete this part with another jig and more stamping of musical feet!
The first Song of Mary is a delightful lullaby Taladh Chriosda which reminded me vaguely of Scarborough Fair, Meredith Hall sings poignantly, accompanied by female singers and La Nef, and is one of the highlights. The vespers return us to a more formal style and I like the way the choirs’ plainsong is backed by the early instruments.
All Sons of Adam, Sing Nowell! commences the final part and is delicately sung by the choir with the fiddle prominent. One of the standout items on the DVD is Meredith Hall singing What Child is this? and I’m also impressed how she changes to sing the charming Manx carol Usheg veg ruy which is about a robin; fortunately a translation is provided! Fiddles lead us into the lilting instrumental O'Carolan's Cup followed by another jig. The delicate sounds of Tina Bergmann on hammered dulcimer and Kathie Stewart flute ensure the success of At Work on the Land/Tatter Jack Walsh with sounds evocative of the Celtic islands, wistful and enchanting, I was so struck by this I repeated it before moving on. The traditional Irish carol The Seven Rejoyces of Mary sees Hall return with the choir and brings their contribution to an appropriate positive ending. It made me realize how many delightful carols have been used in this recording, of which I only know a handful and this adds to its attraction. The Postlude is another Jig, this time for Christmas Eve and one can imagine happy revellers dancing to this.
This is a very well thought-out and produced recording which is original in concept and has a variety of moods. You might want to play certain parts at different times to suit the occasion but it will make a good present for someone whose usual response is “I’ve got those Carols already!’ As I hope I’ve shown, the title is slightly misleading. The disc is in fact full of variety and I trust it won’t put off buyers. I look forward to catching up on Apollo’s Fire and the other performers’ back catalogue and to their future releases.
David R Dunsmore
An unusual and thought-provoking Christmas disc sparklingly performed.
Full Track-Listing
  Part 1:”A Light in the Darkness”
1. Processional: “Oikan ayns Bethlehem” (The Babe in Bethlehem) (Manx Gaelic Carol) [1:47]
2. “Duan Nollaig” (Scottish Gaelic Carol) [1:47
From The Vespers of St Kentigern:
3. “Deus in adjutorium” – “Alleluia Alleluia” (by Jeannette Sorrell) [1:27]
4. Responsorium – “Gloria Patri” [2:37]
5. Hymnus: “Iste confessor Domini” [2:29]
6. “Alleluia” (by Jeannette Sorrell) [1:34]
7. “The Road to Lisdoonvarna” (Traditional Irish jig) [1:45]
  Offertory & Carols
8. “Veni, veni, Emmanuel” (12th-century carol) [3:08]
9. “Nowell, Nowell, Tydings Trew” (15th-century carol) [3:07]
10. “Noël nouvelet “15th-century French/Breton carol, Oxford English text [2:59]
11. “Sussex Carol” (On Christmas Night) (Traditional English) [2:37]
12. “Come, My Children Dere”(17th century Scottish carol, arr. Alexander Montgomerie & Jeannette Sorrell) [2:56]
13. “Wat ye what I got yestreen” (Skene MS, Scottish, 1715) [3:14]
  Part Ii Song of Mary
14. “Taladh Chriosda” (Christ Child's Lullaby) | Scottish Gaelic lullaby [3:55]
15. “Hodie, Christus natus est” (Gregorian Antiphon to the Magnificat, Vespers for Christmas Day) [1:06]
16. “Magnificat anima mea” [3:06]
17. “Antiphon de Maria ad Vesperas” – Benedicamus [1:32]
  Hymn & Carols
18. “All Sons of Adam, Sing Nowell!” (Tune from Forbes, Songs & Fancies, Aberdeen, 1662) [3:10]
19. “What Child is this?” (Tune: My Lagan Love, traditional Irish air) [3:40]
20. “Usheg veg ruy” (Little Red Bird) (Manx Gaelic lullaby)[3:29]
21. “O'Carolan's Cup” Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738) [2:11]
22. O'Carolan's Favorite Jig (Turlough O'Carolan) [1:41]
23. “At Work on the Land/Tatter Jack Walsh” (arr. Tina Bergmann and Jem Moore) [4:01]
24. “The Seven Rejoyces of Mary” (Traditional Irish carol) [3:04]
25. Postlude: “Christmas Eve’’ (Irish reel) [2:05]
Bonus DVD:
Highlights from the premiere concerts at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio (Includes: “Oikan ayns Bethlehem”, “Duan Nollaig”, “Vespers of St. Kentigern”, “Alleluia”, “What Child is this?”, “Noël Nouvelet “) [21:00]