Of Kings & Angels (CD review)

A Christmas Carol Collection. Mediaeval Baebes. QOS 009CD.

It's that time of year again. Well, it's that time of year if you're reading this around Christmas time, anyway. The musical ensemble Mediaeval Baebes present a holiday celebration of seventeen Christmas carols on their album Of Kings & Angels.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mediaeval Baebes, Wikipedia describes them as "a British ensemble of female musicians founded in the 1990s by Dorothy Carter and Katharine Blake. It included some of Blake's colleagues from the band Miranda Sex Garden, as well as other friends who share her love of medieval music. The lineup often rotates from album to album, and ranges from six to twelve members. As of 2010, the group sold some 500,000 records worldwide, their most successful being Worldes Blysse with 250,000 copies purchased."

The current members include Katharine Blake, Esther Dee, Clare Marika Edmondson, Sarah Kayte Foster, Emily Alice Ovenden, and Josephine Ravenheart, with several additional musicians accompanying them on medieval instruments and vocals. Mediaeval Baebes are a talented group of singers who in various configurations have been singing together for nearly twenty years. Surely, practice makes perfect, and they are just that, their voices blending in heavenly harmony, the solos just as radiant.

Most listeners will find the majority of the carols familiar: "I Saw Three Ships," "We Three Kings," "The Holly and the Ivy," "Ding Dong Merrily on High," "Good King Wenceslas," "Away in a Manger," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," and "Silent Night." But then there are less familiar items, like "Ther Is No Rose of Swych Vertu," sung in Middle English; "In the Bleak Midwinter," with words by Christina Rossetti and music by Gustav Holst; "Gaudete," sung in Mediaeval Latin; "Veni, Veni Emmanuel," based on a Latin text; and so on.

Each song is a little gem, but I found a number of them of particular interest. "The Holly and the Ivy" stands out for the sweet spirit of the ensemble, as well as the precision of its execution. They project the song with exactness and heart, a winning combination. "Ther Is No Rose," Veni, Veni," and "The Angel Gabriel" appealed to me for the beauty of the ensemble's a cappella harmony, which needs no support or accompaniment to sound celestial. "Ding Dong" is joyful and zesty; the combination of Rossetti and Holst is nigh irresistible; "Away in a Manger" benefits from the complement of a delightful zither; "God Rest Ye" gets a more nineteenth-century treatment than we usually hear; "Silent Night" profits from not sentimentalizing it; and Benjamin Britten's "Corpus Christi Carol" is almost not a carol at all, yet works perfectly well for its symbolism.

Certainly, this is not your usual Christmas album, yet it's one that should please both classical and popular-music fans. Very enjoyable.

Mediaeval Baebes recorded the album in 2013 at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge and Bellissima Studios, with Katharine Blake producing and musically directing the music and Ms. Blake and Rob Toulson engineering and mixing it. The sound is quite clear, the solos a bit close and the upper midrange a tad forward. I liked that the supporting vocals were fairly dimensional and not necessarily in the same plane as the lead singer. Too often, however, individual instruments appear highlighted, somewhat lessening the sound's natural or lifelike effect. I also detected a very slight high-frequency background noise, not exactly a hiss but more of a steady-state whine, that accompanied much of the music. Fortunately, these are minor concerns, and most listeners will no doubt find the sonics quite attractive.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa