various artists,
A Christmas Celtic Sojourn
(Rounder, 2001)

Brian O'Donovan is the producer and host of A Celtic Sojourn, a radio show that plays each Saturday on WGBH-FM in Boston (or can be streamed at This recording is his compilation for 2001, a real treasure bound to become your new favorite Songs of the Season CD. This collection combines all of the sad mournful sounds you'd expect for bleak midwinter as well as the hopeful wishes for rebirth. It reflects on the birth, death and resurrection, not only of the world's most celebrated martyr, but of the Earth itself and those of us who sojourn upon it as well.

I am a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas music -- I want to hear it the way I heard it as a child. However, Maddy Prior puts the words of Edmond Hamilton Sears' "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" to the sounds of a traditional English air. The musical arrangement of the Carnival Band lends a renaissance sound to the arrangement, with lute, small tabor, violin, recorder and double bass. Maddy Prior's clear, brilliant voice on this ancient tune won my heart immediately, so much so that I don't ever want to hear the traditional version again. Aine Minogue does a similar thing with "Silent Night," providing a beautiful introduction on harp with cello accompaniment, and then sings the words in Irish Gaelic. Here, it's different than I've ever heard, yet familiar enough, turning the German Lutheran hymn into something uniquely Celtic.

While I'm not used to viola being a featured instrument in Celtic music, it adds such a melancholy sound to Bonnie Rideout's "Gloomy Winter," even the brightest days dim as you listen to this song. I could listen to this in the middle of summer and still want to curl up with a book under a woolen throw in front of the fireplace, cup of hot chocolate and animal crackers by my side.

Many of the songs and tunes on this compilation follow a similar pattern, beginning with one voice or instrument then building in intensity with more voices or instruments, occasionally finishing in mournful solitude. John Renbourn does this with Mairead Ni Dhomhnaill and the Voice Squad in "The Wexford Lullaby", as does Dordan with "Draoicht na hOiche", an original piece that is bound to become a traditional favorite if it hasn't already. Revels performs "Spered Hollvedel," which starts with piano and pennywhistle, builds by adding two bombards, and ends quietly with synthesizer, piano and pennywhistle. Synthesizer and bombards intertwined with pennywhistle in the same song? Yes, Virginia, it works.

Other works include Sheena Wellington's gorgeous, ethereal voice singing "Christ Child's Lullaby" from the Outer Hebrides; Steve Schuch and the Night Heron Consort playing the soothing instrumental lullaby, "Sou Gan"; and Boys of the Lough performing a charming tune written by Dave Richardson called "A Midwinter Waltz." Maddy Prior sings again with the Carnival Band, doing "Cradle Song," a traditional tune from the northeast part of England, with words by Isaac Watts, the "father of English hymnody," written in 1715, and arranged by Andy Watts, with clarinet and bass providing a unique flavor.

The traditional earthy harmonies that typify many English folk groups add wonderful touches to Nowell Sing We Clear's version of "I Saw a Maiden," based on a traditional Basque tune with lyrics from a 15th-century religious poem, and Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy and Martin Carthy do justice to "The Ditchling Carol," admonishing the wealthy to remember the poor at Christmas. The ancient Celtic voice is well-represented in Connie Dover's "Personent Hodie/Cantus," a 14th-century Latin hymn that includes English translation of verses she ascribes to the tradition of Irish monks in the middle ages. Her beautiful haunting voice, with her unique vocal ornamentations, is backed up by the incomparable Phil Cunningham on keyboard and pennywhistle.

I'm not particularly fond of religious choral Christmas pieces because the recording usually ends up sounding like a lot of sopranos singing with mouths full of marshmallows. However, Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde provides a rich, yet understated approach to the first of their works chosen for this CD. "Misteriou Joaius" (Joyful Mysteries) is sung in that rarest of Celtic languages, the Breton language. Even though I don't understand the words, they come through beautifully on the recording. It's backed up by organ, flute and various percussion instruments that effortlessly enhance instead of overpower the voices. Christian Desbordes, the choir director has spent much time celebrating and spreading awareness of his native language through religious choral singing. This piece is also a good fit for the rest of the CD, even though most of the other selections are instrumental, solo, duo or trio vocals. Not so with the second selection by this group, "O na kaerra burzud (Oh, What a Wonderful Miracle)." This tune from the Celtic area of Cornwall with words in the Breton language is one of those Alleluja, Alleluja, pounding church organ things. While it's a beautiful piece, it doesn't fit the mood that O'Donovan has tried to create on this CD.

O'Donovan provides all sorts of notes about the artists, origins of the songs and why they're important, translations of some of the lyrics (since many of them are not in English), and photos of the artists. However, it's not clear that all of the credits are accurate for each song -- for instance, Byron Duckwell isn't listed as performing vocals on "Oiche Mhaith Leibh" with Aine Minogue, but someone with a male voice is singing, and there seems to be a fiddle on the same tune that's not credited. On the other hand, John Renbourn is credited with playing guitar on an a cappella piece, "The Wexford Lullaby." My best guess is that O'Donovan took the credits from the original CD liner notes for the CDs from which he selected pieces, instead of providing the selected songs' credits, and as a consequence, the correct folks and instrumentation are not properly credited in the liner notes.

Many thanks to Brian O'Donovan, WGBH Educational foundation and Rounder Records Corp for this wonderful selection of mystical holiday Celtic music. While I normally scoff at self-praise on CD covers, this time it's true. I can't say it any better than O'Donovan does on the CD cover -- "What you hold in your hands welcomes you, like a warm fire on a damp winter's eve, to a wonderful world of English airs, Scottish highland tunes, Welsh lullabies and Irish carols, performed by some of today's most gifted interpreters of Celtic music. With this collection, I invite you to 'Take your coat off and sit down. Would you like a bottle of stout or a cup of tea? I came across this beautiful Christmas music recently. Let me put it on for you....'"

[ by Alanna Berger ]
Rambles: 14 December 2001

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