The Darkest Midnight: Songs of Winter and Christmas

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The British group Papagena consists of five women: three sopranos, and a pair of altos. Nevertheless, until the final two pieces by contemporary composer Don MacDonald, they mostly avoid part-singing or madrigal-like textures here. The Darkest Midnight has lots of solos and monophonic lines. This is what holds together a startlingly wide variety of material, from medieval chant to Joni Mitchell, from traditional Irish and German material to Ravel and contemporary pieces. The group is technically impressive, with small groups of voices fused into smooth single and dual lines; you could sample the medieval Angelus ad virginem for a taste. But the way the program leads you into a deep sense of mystery is the most unusual accomplishment here. As the title suggests, this is a solstice album rather than a Christmas one, although Jesus does make a guest appearance. Seven languages are represented in total; others will have to gauge the vocal coaching, but the music seems to hold together as a single utterance. Somm's studio sound is ideal; a church would have lost some of the uncanny precision. A top seasonal release of 2018, and one that will serve for many years to come.

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