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.

JJP

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


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

Mission Statement

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa