Taverner Consort, Choir & Players,
The Carol Album:
Seven centuries of
Christmas music

(EMI, 1989; reissued, 1997)

You have to learn to turn your stereo up in advance.

The Carol Album begins very quietly, with a female choir singing a faint "Veni, veni Emmanuel" which only gradually crescendos into an audible level. It's a shame, too, because it's a good beginning.

Male voices are added to the choir for the next track, "Stille Nacht," which is lovingly sung in its original German. And there are 22 more tracks coming, each one a highly polished vocal arrangement of old familiar and less familiar Christmas carols.

The 33-member Taverner Consort and Choir packs quite a vocal punch. With 18 diverse musicians from the Taverner Players in support and the steady hand of director Andrew Parrott, you've got a musical combination which can really power out a Christmas album even without electric guitars and heavy percussion. It's unfortunate that the recording was released at such low levels -- anyone mixing it up in a CD changer will either strain to hear this album or get blasted by the others in the set.

But it's worth a volume adjustment, mark my words. The Carol Album: Seven centuries of Christmas music is one of the best collections of courtly holiday choral music I've yet found. Besides a very professional singing troupe, the album is blessed by a small band of musicians whose instrumental contributions sound like something straight from some great European court hall. Although usually operating in the background, the musicians do get a few all-instrumental numbers, such as the delicate "Marche des rois," the danceable "Verbum caro: Y la Virgen" and the brief "Il est ne, le divin Enfant." "Branle de l'Officiel" is another lively tune made for dancing -- in this case, the popular French dance tune became better known to modern audiences as "Ding Dong Merrily on High."

There are a number of stand-out tracks here, like a very unusual arrangement of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," using a much older melody than is currently popular. "The Old Year now away is fled" boasts a strong female solo and uses the well-known melody of "Greensleeves." Other highlights are the full sound on "The Babe of Bethlehem," the familiar "The Coventry Carol," "Gaudete," the solo/response round "Riu, riu, chiu," a sweet soprano solo on "Swete was the song the Virgine soong," and an all-male "Nova! nova!" But, truly, I can't point to any bad tracks on the album.

The liner notes are excellent, providing historical details of each tune, lyrics in each song's original language as well as the English translation, and details on which vocal sections and instruments are used on each track.

If you like a historical touch at Christmas, The Carol Album is a necessary addition to your collection. The sound problems, while disappointing, are worth overcoming.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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