Summary for the Busy Executive: Then hay for Christmas once a year!
I confess that a large part of the appeal of Christmas for me lies in the depth of its roots. I hear an old carol or think of the familiar story and I can visit the past and very often the best of the past, including the pre-Christian past. I also visit my own past and my own home – the crisp Midwest winter air, the stark black-and-white of birch and maple trees, the crunch of wet snow under rubber boots, the white paint of the Congregationalist steeple at night under which friends and I sang carols in four-part harmony. Of course, our carols, I found out, had gone through the sturdy mill of 18th-century hymnody. The discovery of the Medieval and Renaissance carol tradition came as a wonderful present, as did the Christmas songs of the folk tradition. I associate Christmas with childhood and adolescence and therefore get sentimental over it. But the beauty of the music remains as fresh as ever.
The Baltimore Consort approaches the music mainly as a Renaissance group. The arrangements are precisely that, modern to boot, made mostly by Consort members, but devised in general to give an archaic sound. Viols, rebecs, citterns, lutes, and wooden flutes help. They generally take tunes from more-or-less original sources rather than traditional ones, so a piece like "Ding-dong, Merrily on High" ("Bransle l'officiel" from Arbeau's Orchésographie of 1589) rings with a piquant difference. The instrumental work is quite fine and the arrangements free of fancy, kitschy clutter. The vocal work falls to soprano Custer LaRue. She has a naïve quality to her voice, a slightly straight tone that suits the music down to the ground. When she forays into Kentucky and the eastern mountains, both she and the Consort give the music a slight bend and loosen up a bit rhythmically. I tell you, I hear her against the sound of the cittern, and I feel the snap of winter's breath. An album to listen to at night, preferably in front of a warm fireplace.
Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz