The goal of the Revels organization is to build tradition through music, dance, and drama, and the yearly Christmas Revels has, over the years, built up a a set of expectations that allow it to be both fresh (with music and folklore from a different culture each year) and comfortingly familiar, with certain songs and dances and the overall structure the same from year to year.
In 2012, the focus is on Irish traditions (see review of the 2012 Revels performance). This — especially for a Boston-based audience — skews the balance towards the familiar songs and stories. So this year’s CD, Strike the Harp, takes a hit on the freshness factor, since many of us grew up with these songs and everyone in the folk music world has heard a lot of Celtic music over the past decade or two.
The quality that saves this album from being just yet another Irish-themed Christmas collection is the quality of the performers and the judgment of director George Emlen.
“The Wexford Carol” is a big production, with the children’s chorus most prominent, but also backed by the adult singers and instrumentals. The brass-and-timpani introduction by the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble also borrows melodic phrases from the Carol.
“Deck the Halls” is introduced with a solo in Welsh (under the name “Nos Galan”), and the liner notes remind us that the song was collected in Wales decades before the English version. The arrangement is lively enough, and with enough brass accompaniment to transcend standard caroling.
Two instrumental sets by the Ceili Band are well-done Irish tunes for set dancing. During the Revels, the music is played by the Rattling Brogues, including piper Paddy Keenan, guitarist Mark Roberts and fiddler Sheila Falls Keohane. The music is pleasant enough and well done but in a hotbed of Irish music like the Boston, it is not particularly outstanding. However, the CD contains two extra tracks containing another set of jigs and reels from the band, so there’s plenty of delightful music.
Similarly, “Rocky Road to Dublin” is very Irish although not particularly Christmas-related. However, I’m pleased that soloist David Coffin articulates well enough that, for the first time, I can understand the lyrics. Mary Casey also does a lovely job as the soloist on “Colcannon”, backed by chorus and bodhran.
Both “The Darkest Midnight in December” and “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate” suffer from the lack of context provided by the storyline of the Revels.
If there was a single omission from the performance of the Revels that I wish had been included, I could wish for the spoken word “Deer Cry” or “Lorica”. Quite aside from the cultural importance of this prayer attributed to Saint Patrick, the collective strength of the text is extraordinary far more than the individual couplets would lead one to expect. In part, it reads,
I place all heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness:
Between myself and the powers of darkness.
Strike the Harp works is not the best collection of Irish holiday music I’ve heard. It is, however, an excellent reminder of the 2012 Revels show, and a pleasant, somewhat eclectic collection of Irish music.
(Revels Inc, 2012)