St. George's Canzona

To Drive the Cold Winter Away: A Fireside Presentation of Music for Merrymaking

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In reference to CRD's To Drive the Cold Winter Away featuring St. George's Canzona under the direction of John Sothcott, a little background might not hurt. There were basically three generations of the early music revivalists in the twentieth century. The first generation, beginning about 1920 or so, revived the music, but by and large didn't have the instruments to play it on apart from the recorder family, harpsichord, and some lutes; certain revivalists, such as Andrès Segovia, were even a little arrogant about playing old music on modern instruments, citing inherent limitations and perceived inferiority about them. The second generation, which emerged in the 1950s, finally had the instruments, but was unsure about how to be combined and how best to utilize them to fit the music, so that period is typified by a lot of arranging and adaptation of old music, not to mention borrowing from sometimes anachronistic folk sources. The third generation, which emerged in the 1980s, was informed by solid musicological scholarship, mastery of the instruments, and armed with a number of established strategies toward realizing old music, although they are limited to some extent by dogmatic concepts and a desire to correct what they feel are injustices to text and other excesses caused by the second generation.

St. George's Canzona, led by ex-Musica Reservata recorder player John Sothcott, solidly belonged to the second generation and emerged around 1970, late within its historic compass. The classic holiday album To Drive the Cold Winter Away was made in 1975 and embodies virtually everything third-generation auditors cannot stand about the second; everything is arranged, often with instruments not belonging to the same period playing together. The program is organized into five segments, each having a distinct theme such as "A Medieval Holiday," with a general grouping of pieces given the theme, but with a wide historical focus; sources from the fifteenth century rubbing shoulders with those of the twelfth. Be that as it may, To Drive the Cold Winter Away is irresistible and fun; it celebrates a world of chattering crumhorn choirs, palpitating and clanging percussion that some experts state didn't exist in Medieval Europe, a tambourine happy clattering away while a renaissance viol consort drones somewhere off in the distance. And it's all absolutely delightful, energetic, and will serve to make one's Christmas a good deal merrier than many commercially intended popular Christmas albums. A standout element is Rosemary Harrison's low-key, cheerful singing; moreover, some third-generation early music groups, such as La Reverdie and Dufay Collective, certainly gleaned a measure of inspiration from the sheer love of music-making and entertainment value of groups such as St. George's Canzona, so there is some forward relevance to this disc and its style. If there is any compromise at all to To Drive the Cold Winter Away, it is merely the LP-conceived dimensions of the program; as the extraordinary instrumental jam on "Here we come a-wassailing" fades out, one might think "would it have hurt us to have 20 or more seconds of that?"

If one is an early music purist, St. George's Canzona and CRD's To Drive the Cold Winter Away might seem sacrilegious, but to the rest, its effervescent joy and distinct personality may seem like manna from heaven.

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