Winter Tales: The Seasonal Album You've Been Waiting for: Echoes December CD of the Month
If your ears shut down whenever a Christmas carol comes on, or you feel like you have to brush your teeth after hearing yet another seasonal chestnut, then I may have the album you’ve been waiting for. It’s a collection of new seasonal recordings called Winter Tales. The Deutsche Grammophon label has gathered 10 artists from different strains of ambient chamber and neo-classical music, along with two outliers, and gathered them on a single disc for this effect: taking well-known and obscure seasonal songs and turning them into atmospheric journeys. This is an album that, like the Windham Hill Winter Solstice recordings, taps into the mood and memories of Christmas more than the religious observance.
Among the artists are Dustin O’Halloran, Peter Gregson, Hania Rani and Brian & Roger Eno. There are also lesser-known composers, among them a duo called Vanbur, consisting of Jessica Jones and Tim Morrish. They tap a well-worn seasonal song, “Carol of the Bells.” Based on a Ukrainian folk song, “Shchedryk,” and adapted by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1914, it’s cyclical melody that has always struck a chord with me in a minimalist, meditative sense. The Vanbur duo adapt it as a choral hymn, slowing it down and turning it into a cosmic round for voice and strings.
English composer Peter Gregson, on the other hand, takes a more obscure seasonal song called “Taladh Chriosta” (or “Christ’s Lullaby.”) It’s a carol traditionally sung by the islanders of the remote Outer Hebrides on Christmas Eve. This song is usually given a folk arrangement, but Gregson takes it into an ethereal choral space with barely-there voices and strings, making it seem to hang suspended in mid-air like a chill breeze.
The spirit of the Late-Harold Budd hangs over much of this music, including Dustin O’Halloran’s interpretation of a song from where he currently lives in Iceland. O’Halloran is known for his film work on Ammonite and The Hate You Give, as well as the TV series Transparent. He’s also one half of the ambient chamber group, A Winged Victory for the Sullen. Teaming up with another American composer, Bryan Senti, he takes the Icelandic hymn, “Hvað flýgur mér í hjarta blítt” or ‘What Gently Flutters” and threads a sparse melody with piano, and strings that seem to hover at the borders of perception.
More familiar is the song “Coventry Carol.” It’s adapted by Balmorhea, the Texan band headed by Rob Lowe and Michael A. Muller. I used to categorize them as Ambient Americana, but they’ve become more neo-classical since they signed to the Deutsche Grammophon label. Their rendition of this song rests on a muted piano and nylon-string guitar arrangement that lays the song bare from most versions you may have heard. It’s like Texas prairie tall-grass struggling in a deep winter chill.
The tone of Winter Tales is solemn and introspective, like listening to this music in a church on the quietest of nights, with nothing but candle illumination. Even the two outliers maintain this mood. One of them is Ane Brun, the Norwegian singer who you might recall had two CD of the month picks of her own in December of 2020. Her interpretation of a 15th century German song is a result of pandemic isolation. Brun sculpted a choir from her own multi-tracked voice, inspired by an image just like the church I described.
Then there’s Brian and Roger Eno, at least one of whom is an avowed atheist, choosing “O Holy Night.” Roger Eno claims it’s an “exquisite” melody, but the many versions I’ve heard, most sung by male tenors, have always hit my ears as unremittingly sappy. But the Enos almost redeem this song from the mid-19th century. They call it “Wanting to Believe.” Roger Eno completely rewrote the lyrics so that instead of looking to the birth of Jesus for redemption, we look to ourselves to “light a light and leave it to shine in our dark times.” They stay true to the traditional melody with the base set around Roger’s voice and piano as Brian gradually decorates it with spare, slightly off-kilter synthesizers and chimes. I was initially put off by the song, but it has grown on me.
Composers like Abbott from Holland and violinist Mari Samuelsen from Norway take a more traditionally choral and classical approach respectively, while Poland’s Hania Rani and Dobrawa Czocher go more ethereal. They turn a traditional Polish carol, ”Jesus Malusieńki” into a trembling evocation of winter stillness with piano and strings. There’s also a Jewish song for Hanukah, “Maoz Tzur” by Classical Sundays, tossed in for good measure.
Winter Tales ends with “Sinfonia” by Joep Beving. The Dutch pianist takes Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” on piano and slowly buries it in an underwater haze of reverb and delays. It’s like a dissolving of the self.
The liner notes state that “Winter Tales ends peacefully with ‘Sinfonia,'” but “peacefully” could be applied to all 12 tracks on this album. It’s a rarity among seasonal recordings, with musicians taking traditional songs and hymns, extracting them out of the shopping malls and church choirs, and sending them into brooding, serene space.