John Langstaff, et al
The Christmas Revels
(Revels, 1998)

The Christmas Revels is aptly named.

I've never seen the live performances, although I've heard good reviews from more fortunate friends. If the soundtrack album, The Christmas Revels as directed by John Langstaff, is a good representation of the show, I've certainly been missing out.

Recorded in 1978, the album mixes jubilant choral productions with solo vocals, individual and group instrumentals, and spoken verses. Ostensibly a period Christmas pageant, the production digs still deeper into the roots of more ancient festivals marking the winter solstice: the shortest day and longest night of the year.

The album begins with the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, a lilting recorder solo (played by Lisle Kulbach) which accompanies the traditional dance of six horned-man figures from pagan tradition. From there the album spreads its all-encompassing wings over mummer's plays, wassails, morris dances, stick dances, sword dances, poetry, feast and pub songs, and sacred and secular carols.

The program is performed in a variety of media, as well. The album boasts a 24-member Revels Chorus, 12 young singers in the Revels Children, nearly a dozen actors and feast performers, the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble and a variety of instrumental soloists.

Even many of the instruments featured sound like something dredged from history, from the still-common fiddle, concertina, recorder, tympani, flute, accordion and guitar to the less-known serpent, rebec, sackbut, lyzarden, shawms, gothic harp and hurdy-gurdy.

Robert J. Lurtsema gives us a gruff, party-loving Father Christmas as resurrected from centuries-old mummery, and director Langstaff follows that recitation with a lusty baritone version of "The Boar's Head Carol." The children's chorus, sounding appropriately waifish, "Come A-Wassailing" for their supper, and Langstaff later returns to lead the chorus and audience in a joyous "Lord of the Dance."

Other favorites include "Masters in This Hall" by Alexander's Feast and the Revels Chorus (with handbells), a medley of sword dance tunes played by fiddler Marshall Barron over the clashes and trompings of the Muddy River Morris Team, the children's lively "Wren Song," Lurtsema's recitation of Susan Cooper's poem "The Shortest Day" and Henry Chapin's cheerful "Fool's Farewell."

The album provides 30 tracks of Yuletide celebrations, and through it all retains the flavor of a true communal celebration, be it a feast hall revel or a frolic through some rural village's streets. The Christmas Revels is certainly a welcome addition to the usual holiday fare.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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