Loreena McKennitt,
A Winter Garden
(Warner Brothers, 1995)

This EP from Loreena McKennitt contains five songs for the winter and Christmas holiday season. Although brief, it's one of my favorite Yuletide CDs. All of the songs are wonderful, and one of them is absolutely stunning -- my favorite recording of a Christmas carol, ever!

"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is not in itself a favorite carol of mine. I love the minor key, but generally prefer carols that blend the Christian and pagan elements more, like "The Holly and the Ivy." The version of "God Rest Ye..." on this EP, though, is my favorite piece of Christmas music. It begins with a drone, to which is added some Middle Eastern hand percussion that blends and contrasts with McKennitt's voice as she sings the traditional verses. Between the verses, strings repeat the melody with some Middle Eastern accompaniment and flourishes, again over that intricate percussion. So far, very nice. And then, after the fourth verse, instead of again repeating the melody with some variations, a strongly Middle Eastern melody begins, and the whole thing transforms -- one can almost see the belly dancers! Through the rest of the piece, then, the traditional music and verses alternates with the Middle Eastern elements in a way that's completely unexpected and yet works beautifully.

"Coventry Carol" here is simple and lovely, with McKennitt's voice and her harp playing and minimal additional accompaniment. It transforms into "God Rest Ye...", which I suppose is why here "Coventry Carol" is missing the major chord that traditionally ends this minor piece.

Her "Good King Wenceslas" is a very nice version, simple on the surface but with a lot going on in the accompaniment when one listens carefully.

McKennitt's beautiful and much-anthologized "Snow" is here, too. For anyone not familiar with it, it evokes a quiet woodland snowfall as dusk falls. The lyric were written by Archibald Lampman, a 19th century poet, and McKennitt set them to music. "Seeds of Love" follows it, reminding us that spring does follow winter, with its hopes for growth and love. The traditional lyrics were again set to music by McKennitt. In both songs the musical setting enhances the meaning and the beauty of the words, as Mckennitt does so well.

Those of us who already love Loreena McKennitt's music will find this a worthwhile addition to our libraries. And if anyone enjoys Middle Eastern music and odd but amazing musical juxtapositions -- or has a belly-dancing friend -- this CD is worth the price for "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" alone!

[ by Amanda Fisher ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.