A leader of the early Methodist movement, Charles Wesley is perhaps best remembered today for his enormous number of hymns. As part of his career, Wesley wrote the words for over 7,500 hymns, 2,000 of which are still sung and 150 of which are included in the standard Methodist hymnbook. Interestingly, Wesley wrote only the words for his hymns, expecting that congregations would pick their own favorite tunes to go with them. As this 2007 disc containing 15 of Wesley's best-known hymns shows, those tunes could come from just about anywhere: from folk songs, popular songs, and Psalms tunes as well as from pieces by contemporary composers like Handel, earlier composers like Purcell, and later composers like Parry.
To play this eclectic mix of musical sources, Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band use an eclectic mix of musical instruments. In addition to a core group made up of an acoustic guitarist who also plays mandolin, a drummer who also plays violin, and a double bassist who just plays double bass, the Carnival Band includes a violinist who also plays recorder and a clarinetist who also plays bassoon and recorder. On top of the band, Prior sings Wesley's words in her trademark clear, penetrating soprano, though she's often joined by four of the instrumentalists adding harmony vocals behind her.
The arrangements are likewise varied. Jesu if Still the Same Thou Art is set for string trio plus soprano. Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise is made over into a clarinet and snare-drum-led choral march. Come to the Skies starts as a folk song for guitar and voice that transforms verse by verse into a galloping hymn. Two things are consistent: the quality of the performances and the spirituality of the words. Prior has been singing high and pure since her days with the electric English folk band Steeleye Span, and her voice here, while not quite as strong as it had once been, is as warm and supple as ever. Every member of the Carnival Band is a virtuoso on his/her instrument or instruments, and the ensemble is tight but relaxed. Together, Prior and the Carnival Band express the joyful promise of Wesley's hymns with graceful sincerity. Park Records' digital sound is nicely balanced between intimacy and immediacy.