Apollo’s Fire: The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra. Sacrum Mysterium: A Celtic Christmas Vespers. Avie, 2012. Apollo’s Fire: http://apollosfire.org/
In recent decades music and the arts in general have been suffused with passion for all things Celtic. There’s gold in them there hills: bagpipes wail with symphony orchestras, and small girls step dance on stages across America. Jeanette Sorrell and her Cleveland-based ensemble Apollo’s Fire have jumped on the bandwagon, but fortunately more thoughtfully and tastefully than, for example, the endless round of offerings from PBS.
The ancient world of the Celts (who originally made their way west from central Europe) encompassed not only Scotland and Ireland but also Wales and parts of England and France. This recording, Sacrum Mysterium: A Celtic Christmas Vespers, draws on this regional diversity, as well as on the mix of pre-Christian and churchly traditions that still exists in countries with deeply held Celtic memory.
One of Sorrell’s strengths is assembling mighty bands of talented guest artists. Here Apollo’s Fire and Apollo’s Singers are supported by Ensemble La Nef from Montreal (Sylvain Bergeron, director), who play various early and Celtic instruments, as well as northeast Ohio’s hammered dulcimer superstar Tina Bergmann and others. The result is an unfailingly colorful procession of plainchant and other liturgical pieces, carols, lullabies and airs. The vocal music is punctuated, especially toward the end of the program, by a few Irish jigs and reels and the lovely instrumental works of 18th-century harper Turlough O’Carolan.
There are some original arrangements including two Alleluias by Sorrell. These contrast nicely with the chant, although the second jars a bit with its Hollywood ending. A creative touch in the ever-open and flexible spirit of Celtic music is the pairing of the familiar “What Child is This” text to “My Lagan Love”, one of the most haunting and hard-core modal of Irish airs.
Much of the vocal work on the recording falls to soprano Meredith Hall, who sings stylishly and has impressive credentials with leading early music groups. However given the talent in Apollo’s Singers, one wishes for more chances to hear the homegrown artists as well. This emphasis on the guest soloist is borne home in the DVD accompanying the recording, which sadly contains only a curtailed version of the concert. The video highlights chiefly and worshipfully, Hall’s solos and Sorrell’s energetic conducting, so that those wishing to see as well as hear the wonderful instrumental forces must hope to experience this concert live.
The audio disc is a pleasure, though, and for many listeners will become a holiday favorite.
Performers: Apollo’s Fire, with Apollo’s Singers, Jeanette Sorrell (conductor), Meredith Hall (soprano), Jesse Blumberg (baritone), Amanda Powell (soprano), Ensemble La Nef & Sylvain Bergeron (director).
Tracks: Oikan anyns Bethlehem (Manx Gaelic carol); Duan Nollaig (Scottish Gaelic carol); Deus in Adjutorium--Alleluia; Responsorium--Gloria Patri; Hymnus: Ist Confessor Domini; Alleluia; The Road to Lisdoonvarna (traditional Irish jig); Veni, Veni, Emmanuel (12th century carol); Nowell, Nowell, Tydings Trew (15th century carol); Noël Nouvelet (15th century French/Breton carol); Sussex Carol (On Christmas Night--traditional English); Come, My Children Dere (17th century Scottish carol); Wat Ye What I Got Yestreen (Skene MS, Scottish); Taladh Chriosda (Christ Child’s lullaby--Scottish Gaelic); Hodie, Christus Natus Est (Gregorian Antiphon to the Magnificat, Vespers for Christmas Day); Magnificat Anima Mea; Antiphon de Maria ad Vesperas; Benedicamus; Hymn: All Sons of Adam, Sing Nowell!; What Child is This? (Tune, My Lagan Love, traditional Irish air); Usheg Veg Ruy (Manx Gaelic lullaby); O’Carolan’s Cup (Turlough O’Caroloan); O’Carolan’s Favorite Jib (Turlough O’Carolan); At Work on the Land (Tatter jack Walsh, arranged by Tina Bergmann and Jem Moore); The Seven Rejoyces of Mary (traditional Irish carol); Postlude--Christmas Eve (Irish reel).
Tina Spencer Dreisbach