Thursday December 27, 2012

KEENE, N.H.

About 16 years ago, I ran across a sampler CD of pieces by a group called Revels from Watertown, Mass. A good many of the pieces had to do with Christmas, delivered in a way that grabbed my attention immediately. There was a wonderful mixture of adult and juvenile voices, backed up by instruments that had that medieval twang, and a tremendous amount of energy put into the performances. I was, as they say, hooked.

I am so impressed with this series, to which so much has been added over the years, that I remind my readers of it every few Decembers or so.

Now, I long ago grew quite tired of hearing the same seasonal songs blasted through shopping center megaphones, radios and television sets -- to the point that I feel like screaming at yet another "Jingle Bells" or "Rudolph." More and more, the music seems to be a celebration of shopping than anything else. On the other hand, I have played these Revels CDs over and over without tiring of them. Most of the selections do not appear on any other recordings, so they have not staled, and (to repeat) the performances are so striking.

Some time ago, I reported on the Revels CDs. Now that enough time has passed, I feel bound to remind my readers of their existence and add two more releases to my comments.

In the order in which they were issued, the first is "The Christmas Revels: Traditional & Ritual Carols, Dances & Processionals in Celebration of the Winter Solstice," containing 30 songs, some of which were sung before Christmas was celebrated in any way familiar to us.


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"Wassail! Wassail!: Early American Christmas Music" has selections that represent "seasonal music from the Southern Appalachian Mountains and African-American traditions, from colonial New England, the Shaker sect, and Native American midwinter celebrations."

"Christmas Day in the Morning: A Revels Celebration of the Winter Solstice" takes a musical look at the Middle Ages and includes both religious and secular pieces.

"Sing We Now of Christmas: Six Centuries of European Christmas Music" includes a good deal of French lyrics and is a good companion set to the last one mentioned.

"A Victorian Christmas Revels" starts with Victorian street cries and sounds not too distant from what is still sung this time of year. On the other hand, we have distinctly British music hall tunes and joyful parlor dances.

Some of "Rose & Thistle: English and Scottish Music from The Christmas Revels" was recorded before an audience, adding even more than the usual Revels excitement.

There are two recent additions to their catalogue. "Sing Noel! A European Christmas Revels" is much like other CDs containing the same material: "March of the Kings," Veni, veni Emanuel," and the like.

"Welcome Yule, An English Christmas Revels" brings the group back to what they do best. The songs are divided into traditional, for children, and for the Christmas season. My favorite among the traditional group are a short version of "The Cries of London," in which the sales pitches of merchants (oyster sellers and chimney sweeps among them) and public announcements are heard as they were once sung in the very noisy streets of that capital city. Among the other selections are "In the Bleak Midwinter," "The Lord of the Dance," "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," and "Tomorrow the Fox Will Come to Town."

Now and then, there are spoken passages that might be programmed out for repeated playing, but most of them are charming the first time through. Each album has a booklet containing information about each selection and (except for "Sing Noel") the complete lyrics. Very user-friendly.

Indeed, I am so enthusiastic about these albums that I urge my readers to look at the website at www.revels.org for more information about these sets and order one or more in time for some very thoughtful gift-giving. At the same time, one can get acquainted with other folk song offerings from this remarkable group.

You can contact Revels to learn about the locales, dates and times of their "live" appearances in the New England area. The phone is 617-972-8300 and the e-mail is info@revels.org.

And a wondrous 2013 to you all!

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.