on April 20, 2013
Rest assured, this is as objective a review as I could make, being a longtime fan of Maddy Prior as well as having grown up with the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Since I have heard occasional clunkers from Prior and lackluster performances of Vaughan Williams in the past, this is indeed a review steeped in perspective and considerable experience.
For me, the experience of listening to this CD creates, for lack of any better term, a "sonic sanctuary." There are few discs in my collection that accomplish such a thing. It could be because it features the well-worn and still familiar voice of Maddy Prior singing familiar tunes that I associate with younger, simpler times... or it could be something more.
The joyful Pagan spirit of Steeleye Span (the folk-rock band with which Maddy Prior is predominantly associated) is famous for conjuring a mystical "Old England" of Fairies, Elves, Robin Hood, Knights and Damsels, Wizards and Witches et al. With the Carnival Band, Prior's voice now conjures an Old England whose verses embrace both the ferocious Pagan traditions of old, and the devotion and reverence of Christianity's mysteries and ceremonies. This is emphasized by Vaughan William's use of traditional melodies (as well as many of his original compositions, crafted by him to sound 'ancient'), with verses from anonymous medieval poets, William Blake, William Morris, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others, then arranged for traditional instruments such as violin, bassoon, recorder, guitar, percussion, clarinet, shawm, double bass, viola, and mandolin. The result is transcendent magic, similar to the way CS Lewis expertly brings the best of many mythologies together in his Narnia books.
Some of the highlights from this disc: the opening tune "The Golden Carol" with its inviting celebratory swing... "Whither Must I Wander" is a picturesque solitary tour of a metaphysical Old England... this CD's gentle offering of "Linden Lea" is a performance that should be shared with all who know the English language... "Come Down O Love Divine" reclaims the well-known hymn from sleepy Sunday services and turns it into a matter of genuine devotion... the inspiring march of "At the Name of Jesus" is rousing indeed... and the ever-familiar "God be With You" that concludes the disc is sincere and true, as it must and always shall be. All this said, this disc is a true, personal joy from beginning to end.
In addition, I feel obliged to put my review in context of the vicious divisiveness of these days, regarding religious belief. Yes, these are songs associated with the Christian tradition, which may not appeal to some of the more Pagan of the Steeleye Span aficionados. As I mentioned before, I am a long time fan of Steeleye, and I grew up in a Christian environment that prominently featured these melodies. That said, my personal unbelief aligns me more with Pagan sentiments than Christian, and that is from where my review comes. But, as I always point out: one does not need to actually believe that Jesus Christ shall reign forever and ever to fully appreciate the beauty and power of Haendel's "Messiah." Likewise, this disc should have broad appeal beyond what its repertory might suggest.