Steve Schuch &
the Night Heron Consort,
A Celtic Celebration, Volume Two
(North Star, 1997)

A Celtic Celebration is described on the cover as "Traditional Yuletide carols performed in a contemporary Celtic style," and this is a perfect description. The sixteen instrumental tracks are each a delightful blend of modern, traditional and Celtic styles, accented by wonderfully eclectic choices of instruments that range from congas and fretless bass to gemshorn, bouzouki and uilleann pipes. This sounds like quite a mix and it is -- and part of the delight is the way it has all been woven into an elegant, seamless and fascinating whole.

In many ways this is a perfect Christmas CD. It's very pretty when first heard, and blends familiar carols with some that are less well-known. Upon further listening more of the richness of the musicianship and arrangements are revealed. I love the way it both repays careful listening, while also being serene enough to act as a backdrop to other activities. That's a difficult balance to achieve, but a valuable one, since it increases the ways an album can fit into one's activities.

"Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella" starts the album, and in many ways typifies it; the Celtic ornamentation of David Coffin's Irish whistle accents Steven Schuch's violin, accompanied by many other instruments. The next song, "Joy to the World/Ding Dong Merrily on High," starts with a mandolin and adds elaboration before "Joy" segues into "Ding Dong" via a mandolin bridge, and with a more Celtic sound.

"Divinium Mysterium," a 13th-century plain chant, combines Stephanie Curcio's delicate harp with Coffin's playing of something called a "voice harp." It's a lovely mix, simple and beautiful. "In Dulci Jubilo (Good Christian Men Rejoice)/The Holly and the Ivy" begins slowly with the first song, then gets quite lively with "Holly." After that, the two are played together -- a mixture I've never heard before, but one that works.

The next three songs are traditional, but ones infrequently heard. "Christ Child's Lullaby" (traditional Hebridean) and "Sou Gan (traditional Welsh) are both lullabies. The first has more of a Celtic sound than many of the others, while in "Sou Gan" the violin, piano and harp have a soothing sound that is not diminished when the Scottish small pipes take the melody later on. "Noel, A New Noel/Patapan" is livelier again with a range of instruments; the first melody is more commonly known to us as "In the Bleak Midwinter."

"The First Noel" is simple again, with guitar, violin, cello and the Irish whistle floating over the top. "Angelus ad Virginem" features a mandolin on this less-familiar carol, with an arrangement reminiscent of a Renaissance dance tune, adding slightly more bass for modern tastes.

"The Manger at Morn," this album's only original piece, was written by Schuch, and its peaceful beauty fits in perfectly here. "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" continues the mood; this may be the best version of the song I've ever heard. Instruments include gemshorn, recorder, cello and bouzouki.

"Oh Come All Ye Faithful" has a martial sound, with its blend of pipes and snare drum, to which other instruments are added as it proceeds. Somehow it manages to achieve this while still not disrupting the overall serenity of the album -- quite a feat, if one thinks about it. This is followed by an elegant and peaceful "Coventry Carol" featuring Schuch's violin and ornamentation from harp and Irish whistle. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" is also played by three instruments; in this one the fretless bass, guitar and violin take turns playing the melody and accompanying it.

The final two carols are among my favorites. I just love the melodies of them both. "The Wexford Carol" is less familiar, and this is a stunning version. It starts simply, then adds a full range of instruments to striking effect. "Once In Royal David's City" ends the album, and the way the instruments pass the melody around is fascinating and beautiful.

I recommend this album highly. Almost anyone would enjoy its serene beauty, and the way that traditional Celtic playing and ornamentation is integrated into a contemporary context is intriguing. The musicianship is superb. It makes an excellent addition to one's library of Christmas music, to be enjoyed either by careful listening or as a background to holiday activities.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]