Deborah Friou
& Julia Lane,
Yuletide Treasure:
A British Isles Winter Celebration

(Castlebay, 2002)

It is always exciting when two excellent harpers combine forces to play as a duo. The very essence of harp music is the ringing of strings, and the natural harmonics that develop through the vibrations. If done properly, this can be enhanced greatly by the use of harps with distinctive voices. Deborah Friou and Julia Lane (of Castlebay) have accomplished this beautifully with their new collection of winter holiday traditional music from the British Isles.

The sounds of the two nylon-strung harps are distinctively different enough to create a rich and vibrant sound when combined. Friou's Dusty Strings has a lush sound full of finesse, while Lane's harp (built by Fred Gosbee) has a touch of ancient overtones, carrying an almost earthy sound to the strings. In addition to the contrasts and combinations of these two sounds, Friou uses a wire-strung Triplett on a couple of tracks, highlighting the stark contrasts of the two types of harps.

"Yuletide Treasure" is well named, for it showcases some true gems from the British Isles winter holiday tradition. Those looking for old favorites won't have to go far, with delightful versions of "Greensleeves" (including two distinct versions of the tune), "The Holly and the Ivy," "Deck the Halls" and "Auld Lang Syne." However, the true mystique of the recording comes from the lesser-known tunes, including such treasures as "Down in Yon Forest," "The Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance" and "Irish Lullaby for the Christ Child."

I think my favorite duet on the recording is the gentle yet sprightly "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" paired with the beggar's carol "Soulin'." The contrast of the two tunes is striking, and it reminds listeners of the contrast of the season for those that have money and those that do not. The arrangement is sparse and open as "Soulin'" begins, but rapidly evolves into a rich and complex upbeat version of "Gentlemen," only to return to the evocative "Soulin'" again at the end.

Another standout is the very Welsh arrangement of "Nos Galan (Deck the Halls)." This track takes the Welsh theme and variations to a delightful climax with the use of two harps. The Irish dance tune "Three Sea Captains" sets very nicely with the upbeat English carol "I Saw Three Ships," and shimmers like the sun on the waves through the dancing strings of the two harpers.

The wire-harp adds a nice texture on "Coventry Carol/Down in Yon Forest," although the wire arrangement may be a little heavy and resonant for some tastes. The wire truly sparkles on "Da Day Dawns," however, calling the listener to come out for the rising sun of Christmas.

One of the most impressive things about this recording is the beautifully coordinated playing of the two harpers. It can be extremely difficult to play harmoniously in tandem. If the two harpers' timing is even slightly different, it can quickly destroy the beauty of two harps together. The beat on this recording is almost always clear and precise, even when struck by both harpers simultaneously. It can also be very difficult to match tuning on two harps, but Friou and Lane have done a very nice job with this as well.

The recording is not limited to harp duets. Lane and Friou both also offer exciting solo tracks throughout. The recording actually opens with Friou's solo "The Holly and the Ivy/Sans Day Carol," which is complex enough that you could almost believe it was a duet. Yet her delivery is so crisp and clean that the effect is downright stunning. Lane offers a haunting rendition of two "Lullabies for the Christ Child," complete with ethereal vocables over the opening and closing strains of the piece.

"Auld Lang Syne" is a surprising delight. It combines the tune Burns originally wanted paired with his famous poem and the one most people in the U.S. are familiar with. I had originally planned to do something very similar at the end of my second recording, and am so glad that I didn't actually follow through with it, for Friou and Lane have done a much more inspired arrangement than I could have possibly achieved. The arrangement opens with Burns' preferred tune, and gradually the more familiar tune interweaves with it, finally leaving the listener with the familiar melody only. Julia Lane's beautiful soprano voice expresses it beautifully, especially on the first (by far my favorite) tune.

The recording ends with a shimmering duet on the Scottish carols "Rorate Coeli Desuper" and "New Christmas." The harpers sparkle and shine on this powerful conclusion to this winter holiday feast for the ears.

[ by Jo Morrison ]
Rambles: 21 September 2002