Christmas carols may not be the world's most inspired melodies, but they're so closely connected with their texts that their messages are clear even when they're played rather than sung. And they're so integral a part of a wonderful and warm holiday season (whether you're in Minnesota or in Florida) and its memories that it's pointless to raise the question of their purely musical values. But quality of performance is another matter; and while most listeners can and do tolerate pretty tasteless run-throughs of these old chestnuts – presumably as much for their sentimental value as for whatever good will the season inspires – no first rate performance is ever unwelcome.
John Marks Records' quartet of distinguished players provides simple, glowing readings, with great beauty of tone, of about two dozen traditional Yuletide favorites. The arrangements themselves are straightforward. In most of the carols, the quartet varies the dynamics in each of the nearly literal repeats as imaginatively as does a church organist accompanying a hymn of many verses. So if there's little or no harmonic or melodic change from verse to verse, there's also no meretricious modulation or self-conscious word or mood painting to draw attention from the familiar melodies and harmonies. Only Gaudeamus by Antony Hopkins is freshly composed and therefore unfamiliar, but it fits seamlessly into the context.
The noticeable tape hiss from the originally analog recording (1995) will hardly put off aficionados of analog sound, who are bound to appreciate its great warmth and presence. Maybe employing a quartet of eminent musicians like these in such simple music is overkill. Or maybe, after all, these really are the world's most inspired melodies. They certainly sound that way here. Whether as a soft background for a quiet Christmas eve or as support for a more boisterous family sing-along (the notes actually suggest this), Marks's highly adaptable collection of elegantly nuanced hymn and carol performances deserves a recommendation befitting the magical and wondrous season itself.
The accompanying flier notes that this recording can be ordered directly from Allegro Corporation (800) 288-2007.
Copyright © 1998, Robert Maxham