When are we ready for Christmas music? Not in September, when the first Christmas albums start to appear; and certainly not before Halloween, when this set was first slated for release. But by now, it’s safe to say we’re ready ~ that is, if we like Christmas. And even those who love Christmas may be tired of hearing the same old songs. That’s where Winter Tales comes in, with a mix of winter, Advent and Christmas songs, mostly wordless, guaranteeing that some of the songs might have a longer shelf life. And since many of our favorite artists appear, the album holds an additional appeal.
“In our dark times we light a light and we lead it to shine.” Roger Eno & Brian Eno lead off the project with “Waiting to Believe,” a modern take on “O Holy Night.” While the new lyrics are more general, they are applicable to a new era. In case you’re wondering, neither Eno tackles the high note. And Brun intones the a cappella “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming,” layered with harmonies. One of the season’s darkest traditional songs, “Coventry Carol,” is given a softer sheen by Balmorhea. As the song is about baby killing, it’s best that this version is lyric-free. A buried choral segment toward the end sounds the appropriate note of mourning. And all will recognize “Carol of the Bells,” one of the season’s best songs, in a thoughtfully subdued vocal rendition by Vanbur.
For those who love winter music as opposed to Christmas music, the best tracks leave the more overplayed carols by the hayside. Peter Gregson, fresh from the release of Patina, contributes a gorgeous choral piece, “Taladh Chriosta,” whose strings shimmer with the sopranos. ABBOTT‘s “Nu Zijt Wellekome” may be a traditional 17th century Dutch carol, but less globally known, so its presence is – like the title – welcome. A stranger inclusion is Festival of Lights song “Maoz Tzur,” since the artist’s name is Classical Sundays. The poem is not included, so few will notice (except that we just pointed it out).
Hania Rani & Dobrawa Czocher impressed us earlier in the season with the sumptuous Inner Symphonies, and their rework of “Jezus Malusieńki” (“Baby Jesus Is Crying”) holds court with lovely ivories and strings. Víkingur Ólafsson offers “Song for Mama,” a piano-centric folk song from his native Iceland, while Mari Samuelsen contributes “Mitt hjerte alttid vanker” (“My heart is always awake”), written for piano and violin. The heart may also be the subject of Dustin O’Halloran & Bryan Senti‘s “What Gently Flutters,” although other answers may include notes, snow and grace. Joep Beving wraps the project in a bow with “Sinfonia,” soft and patient as those flakes that may or may not flutter.
While the album is perfect for December, it’s still more of a Christmas album (with one Hanukkah song) than a winter album. It’s a great Christmas album, mind you ~ one that can bear repeated plays without the dreaded holiday malaise. But Winter Tales is a bit of a misnomer. This being said, we’re bringing this album to the family gathering on Christmas Eve. (Richard Allen)