Ensemble Galilei,
A Winter's Night:
Christmas in the Great Hall

(Maggie's Music, 2002)

I've always been fond of chamber music, but rarely buy any chamber music CDs. Most have that canned studio sound. But A Winter's Night: Christmas in the Great Hall wonderfully captures its live performance in the historic Great Hall at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md. While Ensemble Galilei deserve a lot of credit for a fine performance, the acoustics of the Great Hall should be included in their lineup. Another good thing about this live instrumental CD is its minimal use of live performance accessories. (No annoying intros! There's just a little bit of audience clapping and that's it.)

Most of the tunes begin with an understated push and build to a grand assortment of instruments. For example, "O Come Emmanuel/What Child is This" begins with a haunting bass violin exuding loneliness mixed with anticipation when the oboe appears to add to that anticipation. The harp brings its predecessors up to an energetic plateau when the tune transfers to the familiar "Greensleeves" melody. This buildup-to-transition theme is prevalent throughout the album -- check out "Bells and Bows/New Year's Dawn" (great use of finger cymbals), "Saltarello/Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella" (the harp makes a great framing element) and "The Bellman's Carol/The Moon Shines Bright" (Scottish smallpipes at their best).

The ensemble also manages to infuse their own style into several well-known tunes. "Christmas Day I'Da Moornin'" is a cheerful take on the traditional Shetland jig. "Danse Arabe" from The Nutcracker Suite is an amazing and fresh take on Tchaikovsky's arrangement. The final track, "The First Nowell/Joy to the World/Joy to the World Jig," is a great denouement for the album: it's a blend of recognizable tunes that throws nearly every instrument in their repertoire at the listener.

While this is a collection of Christmas tunes, note that they are traditional Christmas tunes. (No, not Bing Crosby traditional -- we're talking medieval up to 18th century.) This is an introspective Christmas album that recalls the true Christmas musical traditions prior to the 20th-century sentimental Santa Claus Christmas. There are some festive melodies, but most tunes have a very slow and moody pace. That's not a bad thing, but don't expect all happy-cheerful tracks. If chamber music is your thing, A Winter's Night will prepare your mind for the holiday season.

- Rambles
written by C. Nathan Coyle
published 7 December 2002

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