The Secret Life of Carols — not what you think

If you — like me — are looking for a seasonal recording with a fresh perspective, check out “The Secret Life of Carols.” The early music ensemble The Telling presents a collection of (mostly) familiar carols in intimate performances.

Unlike, say, the Boston Camerata, The Telling doesn’t give us the historical development of each piece. Rather, they bring out the ancient yet timeless character of their material.

Soprano Claire Norburn and mezzo-soprano Kaisa Pulkkinen are accompanied by harpists Jean Kelly and Ariane Prüssner. The pure, sustained tones of the singers combined with the quiet sounds of the medieval and Celtic harps cast the music in a soft glow of candlelight.

The arrangements are primarily Medieval, but also personal to the ensemble. “Stille Nacht” isn’t performed with guitar (as it was originally). But the two singers and Celtic harp create a hushed sound that recreates the emotional impact of the original.

“Patapan” becomes a stately pavane that runs counter to most arrangements. And yet it seems perfectly suited to the music. Even Johann Sebastian Bach’s O Jesulein süß, BWV 493 benefits from The Telling’s arrangments. It’s also sung as a duet with the Celtic harp. Here the instrument almost has a music box quality to it I found quite charming.

Other stand-outs for me include the 16th Century Catalonian carol “El Noi de la Mare.” I was not familiar with this piece before. Jean Kelly’s baroque harp reinforces the simple beauty of the tune.

The overall mood of this album is serene directness. Here’s the music, simply performed. And yet each track held my attention. Carols I had heard for decades didn’t sound the way they always did. Thanks to The Telling for letting me in on the carols’ secrets.

The Secret Life of Carols
800 Years of Christmas Music
The Telling
First Hand Records FHR 94

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