The Irish reinvent Christmas music

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 27.11.2014

You don’t have to be Irish to fall in love with music from the Emerald Isle. Yet the Christmas carols sung by Caitriona O’Leary took me by surprise and have provided the first fresh holiday feel around the house for many years. Here is a welcome alternative to the beaten-to-death seasonal music we always sing but secretly dread.

The Wexford Carols (Heresy Records 016) take you straight to Ireland with authentic instruments, traditional rhythms and Ms. O’Leary’s seductive soprano. It’s Christmas and yet it is distinctively minor-key melancholy. The background of the carols tells why.

Dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, some of the carols reflect as much sorrow as joy. Ireland had been plundered by English forces under Oliver Cromwell, all but obliterating the Catholic Church. Faithful were massacred and Wexford torched and sacked. In some cases, Catholics could celebrate mass only in open fields.

In this context does Ms. O’Leary sing This is Our Christmass Day. Eric Fraad, one of the guiding lights for this collection, writes that the carols were intended as a celebration of Christmas but also as a spiritual palliative.  Political content creeps in, as in this description of the prohibition of Catholic mass. The carol, more a lament, actually, concludes with this moving stanza, ending in a heart-stopping suspended silence:

 

But good Old times are past

And now bad times Are come

And worser times make hast

And hasten to us soone

Therefore in frights and feares

Those holy-dayes we pass

In sorrow and tears

We spend our Christmass

 

Moods shift and return in this collection of 12 carols. The most joyful is sung by Ms. O’Leary and Rhiannon Giddens modernized and arranged to a strong beat (Graham Hopkins on jazzy drums). It sets the tone with the opening lines:

 

Christmas Day is come let’s all prepare for mirth

Which fills Heaven and earth at his amazing birth

 

Ms. O’Leary recalls in the beautifully produced program notes that the recording was a “magical experience”. The musicians and crew worked late into the night, “a roomful of wonderful mutual admiration and creative energy, exploring the carols from different musical perspectives”. Instrumentation, aside from the usual Irish fiddle, cello and bass, included whistle, bones and the Irish bouzouki. The sounds captivate the ear.

Heresy Records has once again devoted considerable expense and design talent to the 32-page hardcover CD booklet. Photography accompanying several of the texts is stunning.

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