Robin Petrie,
A Victorian Christmas
(Gourd Music, 1991)
A Victorian Noel
(Gourd Music, 1993)

The breadth and richness of the repertoire associated with the Christmas season is too often underestimated. On these two albums, hammered dulcimer artist Robin Petrie gives some of the lesser-known gems of Christmas music a much-deserved chance to be heard.

The albums are titled "Victorian" for two reasons: first, carol-singing became very popular in Victorian England. Many of the carols on these albums can be found in collections published during the Victorian era, though the tunes may be much older (and of course, some of them did not start out with Christmas-themed words attached). The second reason is because of the popularity of the hammered dulcimer, or "piano harp," as a parlor instrument in the late 19th century.

A Victorian Christmas focuses on music of the British Isles, mostly from England (the one Irish selection is "The Wexford Carol"). Alongside a few well-known tunes such as "Greensleeves" and "The First Nowell," it includes such lovely and little-known carols as "The Carnal and the Crane," "Righteous Joseph" and "The Somerset Carol." Here you can also hear two English tunes for "The Cherry Tree Carol" (much different from the Appalachian melody which is usually heard) and an alternate tune for "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" which was more popular in Victorian times than the one commonly heard today. A particular standout is the haunting, modal carol "All in the Morning," paired in a medley with "The Holly and the Ivy."

A Victorian Noel includes music from all over Europe -- from England to Poland and from Denmark to Sicily. Once again, a few of the tunes will be familiar: "O Tannenbaum," "I Saw Three Ships," "Un Flambeau, Jeannette, Isabella." But once again, there are many little-known musical treasures to be discovered as well. Check out the delightful Austrian dance-carol "Lippai," the meltingly beautiful Basque tune "Bethlehem's Stall," or the noble Galician march "We'll Speak Very Softly."

On both albums, Petrie is joined by a small acoustic ensemble. The lineup on both albums includes Tom Constanten on piano, Barry Phillips on cello and Danny Carnahan (Petrie's husband and artistic partner) on guitar and mandolin. Christmas also features Kim Robertson on harp and Mike Marshall and Kaila Flexer on violin. On Noel, Cheryl Ann Fulton plays harp and Shira Kammen plays violin. On both albums, the various players mesh beautifully into a well-balanced chamber group with a fine, bright sound.

The arrangements are very smooth and tasteful, sometimes bordering on the classical. Good use is made of the tone colors of the various instruments. The only reservation I have regards the decision on Noel to slow down some carols that are usually played at a quick tempo, notably "Fum Fum Fum" and "Masters In This Hall." The slower tempo makes the tunes drag and the playing sound a bit heavy. However, this is a minor point and should not dissuade anyone from checking out the album.

The pace of both albums is fairly slow and gentle. This makes them excellent to put on as "background music" at a dinner or quiet party, where they give the feel of a chamber ensemble playing Christmas carols in a corner. But more than that, they are also very rewarding for "up-close" listening. They have become two of the albums I get out year after year as December rolls around.

[ by Juliet Youngren ]

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