december 2008

Christmas In Antiquity, Exquisitely Rendered

By David McGee

Anonymous 4 (from left): Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner, Marsha Genensky, Johanna Maria Rose: Their Wolcum Yule is a gem for all seasons.

Unquestionably one of the most beautiful and durable Christmas recordings ever, The Baltimore Consort’s 1994 classic Bright Day Star has been given a grand, and most welcome, reissue by Dorian Recordings. This is the music of Christmas in antiquity, a breathtaking collection of carols and dance tunes from the British Isles, Germany and Appalachia, partly instrumental, partly instruments supporting the evocative soprano vocals of Custer LaRue. In addition to LaRue, the Consort’s impressive lineup includes Mary Anne Ballard (viols, rebec), Mark Cudek (cittern, Baroque guitar, viols, bandora), Larry Lipkis (viol, recorder, gemshorn), Ronn McFarlane (lutes), Chris Norman (wooden flutes and pennywhistle) and Webb Wiggins (organ). The special magic of the Consort is to find new grandeur and depth in some of the most familiar Yuletide numbers handed down through the ages. “The Cherry Tree Carol,” dating from the early 1900s (but based on a 15th Century Coventry play) and using a tune collected by Cecil Sharp in Hindman, Knott County, Kentucky in 1917, sets LaRue’s emotional reading to a rich instrumental backdrop of stringed instruments—lute, cittern, bass viol—as the drama builds incrementally, from verse to verse, with the unfolding story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, and the young Christ child foreseeing his own martyrdom and Resurrection when he tells Mary, “This world is no other/Than the stones in the street/but the sun, moon and stars/Shall sail under thy feet.” Based on the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the text recounts a contentious Mary-Joseph relationship and the preternatural wisdom of the babe born to them (it even suggests some resentment on Joseph’s part, when Mary asks him to gather some cherries for her, and he answers, “Let him gather thee cherries, Mary, Who brought thee with child”). That’s another story, but the angry strumming of the bass viol emphasizes the underlying tension described in the text. Jesus himself speaks in a truncated version of the 1833 evergreen by William Sandys, “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” with LaRue perfectly articulating the Savior's biography as He tells it in symbolic terms of “dance” and “my true love,” widely interpreted as meaning, respectively, eternal life and a sinful man being addressed by Christ. Playing a Baroque chamber organ, Webb Wiggins summons great majesty in its piping tone on John Bull’s 17th Century carol, “Een Kindeken is ons geborem,” whereas gaiety arrives in the form of a delightfully jolly instrumental, “Christmas Day in da Mornin’,” a traditional tune from the Shetland Islands, fairly bursting with high spirits in the uplifting dialogue between the lute, eight-keyed flute, treble viol, cittern and bass viol. No Christmas celebration would be complete minus a Michael Praetorius composition, and two are included on Bright Day Star: a solo performance on Renaissance flute in G by Chris Norman that moves from somber and reflective to a fluttering burst of warm exuberance on “Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprugen,” its familiar melody being the basis for Frederick Faber’s “Faith Of Our Fathers,” among other hymns and carols; one of the composer’s most complex hymns, “Quem pastores laudavere,” its tune from the 14th Century preserved in Praetorius’s Musae Sioniae, V in 1607, is quiet and haunting in its instrumental treatment here. Played on a rustic gemshorn (a 15th Century instrument made from the horn of a chamois, or goat) with eerie echo effects added, its solemn stateliness evokes a feel of solitude and peace. And lest the reader think Christmas is too much the commercial spectacle these days, spend some time with “Christmas Is My Name,” a song dating from the early 1600s and described by its unknown composer as “A Songe bewailinge the tyme of Christmas, So much decayed in Englande.” Accompanied by Wiggins’s stern organ and a rumbling bass viol, LaRue brings a fine measure of contempt to the scabrous lyrics (the composer spared no one his enmity, neither prince nor pauper, neither Cathedral nor public square, neither Catholics nor Protestants) and spits out condemnation (although one can detect a certain tongue-in-cheek tinge to her protestastions, as if she were really enjoying the composer’s umbrage) for the unsightly displays of vulgarity all around. “Go the Protestant, hele protest and bouldlie boaste; And to the Puritine, he is so hote he will burn the Roast; the Catholike good deedes will not scorne, Nor will not see pore Christmas for-lorne, Wellay Day! Since Holiness no good deedes will do, Protestants had best turn Papistes too, Wellay daie, wallay daie, wallay daie, where should I stay?” As if in response, the Consort closes out with a jolly country dance tune, “The Shropshire Wakes, or, Hey, for Christmas,” a tune the liner notes describe as “a lusty ballad” that “gives us a vivid Hogarthian picture of Christmas merry-making among young folk in late 17th-century England.” Indeed, in LaRue’s free-spirited vocal (she’s even joined in harmony by the rest of the Consort at one point, the only instance on the disc when all sing at once) and the rollicking, intertwining dialogue of the lute, cittern, rebec, fife and bass viol behind her only serves to heighten the intensity of the unbridled revelry depicted in song, to wit, “Thus they did dance from noon to night and were as merry as Cup and Can/Till they tyred the Fidler quite, And the sweat down their buttocks ran.” Oh, my—lock up your daughters! But let them enjoy Christmas in its full dimensions, from the bawdy to the sacred, as detailed most engagingly by a septet that knows how to do it right. Wellay daie!

A different sort of Christmas celebration obtains in the Anonymous 4’s stirring Wolcum Yule, subtitled “Celtic and British Songs and Carols.” The 4— Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner and Johanna Maria Rose—are no strangers to Christmas music, this being the fourth such endeavor in their distinguished career. On a recent visit to American Public Radio’s “St. Paul Sunday,” Genensky described Wolcum Yule as being a collection of songs dating from “Henry VIII to Peter Maxwell Davies.” The gals are accompanied solely by the estimable Andrew Lawrence-King on Irish harp, Baroque harp and psaltery; his thoughtful accompaniments and three solo instrumentals are models of economic, emotionally resonant virtuosity, with great attention paid to texture and dynamics—listen as he adds drama to his spare plucking with a single, sudden arpeggio in the album opening “Awake, and join the cheerful choir.” In contrast to The Baltimore Consort’s interpretation of “The Cherry Tree Carol,” Lawrence-King lays back with spare, soft harp strums while Susan Hellauer’s robust alto relates the story in a six-verse tale (the song has at least a dozen verses). The 4’s voices are never more arresting than when they mesh in rich, polyphonic arrangements, one of the most compelling here being the a cappella rendering of “The Holly and The Ivy,” one of the most ethereal of all carols. Similarly, the old warhorse of “I Saw Three Ships” sets the voices apart and brings them together in a richly textured rendition, again with spare, tasteful accompaniment by Lawrence-King, that positively soars from midway on. In its first recording ever, Peter Maxwell Davies’ “A Calendar of Kings” reveals itself as a fine evocation of the journey of the three Magi to the scene of Christ’s nativity. In an a cappella arrangement by Davies, the women’s voices comprise an aural portrait of a journey, with passages of quiet and contemplation amidst rising tessitura sections suggesting exertion and heightened emotions, until, finally, calm descends. A beautiful performance, this, full of grace, emotion and the joy of discovery. Henry VIII makes an appearance as the composer of “Grene growith the holy.” This tender a cappella carol/love song is set for three polyphonic voices, with the refrain in a two-voice verse common to the time of the song’s origin. In this instance, references to holly and ivy represent Henry’s undying love for his lady, rather than the Virgin Mary (in the holly’s white blossom) and the sacrificial blood of Jesus (in the ivy’s red berries) in the aforementioned “The Holly and The Ivy.” Another new recording provides one of the album’s most beautiful, and most puzzling, moments. British composer Geoffrey Burgon, better known in his native Britain for his film and TV scores than as a composer of sacred or seasonal carols, set a 15th Century poem to a vocal arrangement. Titled “A god, and yet a man?,” it finds the A4’s voices in a rich, swirling arrangement, rising, falling, cascading in an electrifying polyphonic mix before resolving to a meditative hush—how appropriate, given that the lyrics are, or the poem is, a series of existential queries, “similar to medieval riddle poems,” say the liner notes, probing the question of God’s existence. “A god, and can he die?/A dead man, can he live?/What wit can well reply?/What reason, reason give?” queries the second verse. This is the sort of rich text the Anonymous 4 bring to life so memorably on all their recordings, but never more so than when exploring sacred-oriented Yuletide fare. Beautifully packaged and beautifully executed, Wolcum Yule is a gem for all seasons.

album thumbBright Day Star
The Baltimore Consort
Dorian Recordings
Released: 1994; reissued, 2008
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