Sue Richards
& Maggie Sansone,
Merrily Greet the Time
(Maggie's Music, 2003)

The most disappointing part of the winter holidays is that they seem to have a wealth of beautiful melodies that we listen to for only a very short period of time. Sue Richards and Maggie Sansone have cleverly found a way to stretch the period of listening time by creating a magical, musical festival extending from "Harvest Home" to the post holiday, "Bottom of the Punch Bowl."

The marriage of harp and hammered dulcimer -- both ancient and beautiful stringed instruments -- works as exquisitely as any long-term relationship should. Richards and Sansone have worked together before, so this should come as no surprise to any one who's listened to any of their previous recordings. Technically these performances are marvelous, spiced with instrumental trimmings by Karen Ashbrook on Irish flute and Ralph Gordon on cello, plus haunting vocals by Wammie award-winning Connie McKenna.

It's the arrangements that take these simple songs to the highest level of enjoyment. There are, of course, solos on both harp and dulcimer, and harmonies on one often accompany melody on the other. But Richards and Sansone also manage to weave both instruments together in a way that's uncommon, transforming even the simplest tune into an enchanting legend, as on the cuts, "Harvest Home" and "Il est ne/Ding Dong, Merrily on High."

Looking at the titles of the songs, the choices for the melodies on this CD aren't always obvious. While titles like "Harvest Home" and "The Ash Grove" fit nicely in the section called The Ripening of the Year, and "Drive the Cold Winter Away" and "Greensleeves" are crucial for the section marked The Twelve Days, it's somewhat difficult to associate the names "Swallowtail Jig" with Samhain and "The Mist Covered Mountains of Home" with Advent. This is where the meticulous liner notes come in -- they are absolutely integral to the experience of listening to this recording. Don't think you can just burn a duplicate of your friend's disc and be happy with it. The background provided here is fundamental to the storytelling custom that traditionally accompanies the music.

Although the period from autumn to winter solstice is a symbolic reflection of the Earth's dying, there's a lot of fun to be had during this time as well. With a title such as "Drunk at Night, Dry in the Morning," one might expect some sort of reproachful intention, but the spirit is light and merry, and this lively sentiment appears in other cuts, such as "Planxty George Brabazon" and "Simple Gifts/Jingle Bells."

While the ancient Celtic people created many of these stories and songs to warm them during the shortening of the days and calm their fears during the longest nights, this delightful transformation from harvest time to the new year will definitely take the frazzle out of anyone's holiday season. Start early! Play often!

- Rambles
written by Alanna Berger
published 13 December 2003

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