The multi-talented musicians of Cambiata offer a delightful draught of Renaissance cheer for a cold winter’s night with this collection of Christmas songs and instrumental settings from England, Germany, and Spain. The versatile quartet, based in Bethlehem, PA, is joined by Alyssa Thatcher, who adds her lovely lyric soprano voice to many of the carols on this recording.
John Playford provides the tune for the opening piece, Drive the Cold Winter Away, and Thomas D’Urfey, author of Wit and Mirth: Pills to Purge Melancholy, is generally recognized as the author of the 12-verse ballad text. Cambiata has woven two of these verses into a setting that begins slowly and austerely with unaccompanied voice, then gradually builds to a rousing climax.
Greensleeves, one of the most popular and immediately recognizable of all Renaissance melodies, was originally a secular song, and only since 1856—when William Dix added the words “What Child is This?”—has it assumed the role of a Christmas classic. Cambiata offers three settings of this evergreen melody: the first, track 2, is the elaborate and highly ornamented version for English consort by John Johnson, arranged here for solo lute with viol, harpsichord, and recorder accompaniment. It begins in a stately 4/4 time, then moves seamlessly into a spritely 6/8 jig. The second, track 10, is a set of variations for lute by Francis Cutting in 6/8 time. The third setting, track 13, comes from John Playford’s The Dancing Master, and segues into Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind, from Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It, sung to the tune of another popular Playford tune, “Goddesses.” The refrain “This life is most jolly” is perfectly captured in Cambiata’s effervescent arrangement.
Rorate Coeli Desuper is a hauntingly beautiful Scottish hymn based on the tune “The Strily Vale.” The text, an accretion to the Advent liturgy by the early 16th century poet William Dunbar, is full of rich and evocative imagery. Sara Cox’s soaring recorder counterpoint in the second verse is the perfect embodiment of the “celestial fowlès” of Dunbar’s poetry.
The dulcet sounds of high and low recorders suggest a dialogue of shepherds at the beginning of Quem Pastores Laudavere, a very familiar German tune dating back to the 14th century. Via a solo recorder rendition of the medieval Polish carol Jesuza Judasz Przdal, the medley ends with the cheerful Tempus adest floridum, a 16th century Finnish tune much better known to the English-speaking world as “Good King Wenceslas.”
Another tune with early origins, Ther is no ros of swych virtu, beautifully illustrates the medieval theme of Jesus as the new-flowering rose, a sentiment also heard in the popular German carol, Es ist ein Ros.
The Spanish Carol, with its flamenco-like guitar accompaniment and syncopated strings, perfectly complements the ever-popular villancico, Riu Riu Chiu. Here, a colorful battery of percussion instruments punctuates a back-and-forth exchange between recorder and krummhorn, again evoking a pastoral duet.
No Renaissance Christmas collection would be complete without a lullaby, which evokes the image—so often rendered in paintings of this era—of the tender relationship between the Virgin and the Child. Cambiata offers two of the most beautiful in the repertory: The Lute Book Lullaby (“Sweet was the Song the Virgin Sung”) and the Coventry Carol, both affectingly sung by Alyssa Thatcher.
Cambiata’s arrangement of the very familiar carol The Holly and the Ivy employs only lute and strings accompanying the voice. This is a gentle, lulling rendition of a tune first collected by Cecil Sharp in the early 20th century but doubtless of earlier origin. The text is an amalgam of pagan and Christian imagery, and contains a feature common to several songs on this CD: a comparison of the newborn Jesus to a flower or blossom.
Sing Hey for Christmas presents the lustier side of English Yuletide celebrations—a Hogarthian depiction of Christmas revelry that gets a little out of hand. The saucy tune, known as “Dargasson” in the Playford collection, with even saucier words from an anonymous 17th century source, encourages us to throw another log on the fire, make a return trip to the wassail bowl, and toast the New Year.