The Baltimore Consort,
Bright Day Star
(Dorian, 1994)

The Baltimore Consort may have created the perfect Christmas album with Bright Day Star. Track selections are varied and complementary, with interesting liner notes on the history of these very old songs. The carols and tunes are all of the old religious type, focused on faith and renewal, and performed with the respect and intensity they deserve. That same playing makes it more than just a great Christmas album; every song and tune is touched by grace and invites the listener to contemplation and quiet joy in the miracle of life.

I've listened to this album on the coldest day of the year, when everything was wrapped in ice and the sun was hiding in angry blue clouds, and in rushing spring, with pollen blanketing fields of flowers. No matter when it's played, Bright Day Star sounds fresh and fitting.

There are bright songs to promise hope and warmth in winter and grief. "Ding Dong Merrily," stripped of its words, is boundingly joyous, a laugh in music. "The Old Year Now Away is Fled" plays on the tune more familiar as "Greensleeves," slowly at first, but with a rearrangement that carries the cheer of an increasingly raucous party. "The Wren Song" skips over the surface of its melody as it tells the heroic deeds of an old superstition. There's the strangely joyful carol "Een Kindeken is ons geboren," a unique piece on the album, performed entirely on chamber organ. And "A Christmas Jig" is almost dictatorial in its power to cheer. "Remember, O Thou Man" is a tuneful meditation, too calm to sound like the lecture it is.

And there are quiet, thoughtful tunes, made to be heard close to the heart in peace and stillness. "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day" is a sweet, high song of barely hidden metaphor. The obvious Christian emphasis of these songs is given a universal grace and appeal by the musical delivery and will carry the intended feelings to those of any faith. "Wir Singen Dir Immanuel" is a strong royal tune, with a hint of wildness from Chris Norman's flute. The organ reappears on "The Bellman's Carol," matching its resonance against LaRue's voice and nicely contrasted with Ronn McFarlane's lute. Another instrumental standout, "Quem pastores laudavere," uses a solo gemshorn to replace a boys choir for a subtle feel that almost makes the tune into a lullaby.

Custer LaRue's vocals, first heard in "The Old Year Now Away is Fled," are worth special notice. LaRue has a wonderful voice for carols, a clean, controlled soprano that elevates the carols as a whole instead of using them as a showcase for the vocals. Her voice adds a level of emotional resonance to merry songs like the Irish " Wren Song" and thoughtful pieces like the instructional " Bellman's Carol."

Chris Norman's flutes are so personable and emotive they almost stand in for a vocalist. Mary Ann Ballard, Mark Cudek and Larry Lipkis contribute multiple instruments, including the viols that provide a quiet foundation for the majority of tunes on the album. No one performance overwhelms the others, and the integration of instruments is so smooth it could almost be one multiarmed musician.

There's more to the power of these songs than the beauty of their arrangements or the power of a clear soprano voice. The Baltimore Consort takes an obvious pleasure in the music and it shows in every tune and song on the album. That atmosphere of rejoicing feels especially appropriate for an album of carols. Bright Day Star creates a feeling of celebration and reverence, making a small holiday every time it's played.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 7 June 2003

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