The Baltimore Consort, acoustic specialists in early Renaissance music since 1980, presented a Holiday Concert entitled “Wassail, Wassail” last Friday night at All Saints Chapel at Trinity-Pawling School as part of The Pawling Concert Series. They had been there eight years before. Over the years their personnel has changed somewhat over their large discography of over thirty albums. They were without their soprano, yet counter-tenor José Lemos, who has been performing with them since 2004, was there to hit some of the highest notes that I have ever heard a counter-tenor hit.
They opened with “The Lord of the Dance,” set to the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts.” In Sydney Carter’s lyrics the newly born baby declares that He is the new David, dancing to salvation, even unto his death as a blasphemer. This neo-Dionysian approach is uplifted by the ecstasy of the tune. Another English dance tune from the early eighteenth, “On the Cold Ground,” jauntily followed.
“Now, Brothers,” by A.A. Milne (author of “Winnie-the-Pooh”), re-worked a late seventeenth French carol. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of a late seventeenth century carol, “On Christmas Night,” sang of the new-born King. An Elizabethan lullaby, “Sweet was the Song the Virgin Sung” delivered the charm of innocent care for a newly born baby. Ronn McFarlane delivered an Elizabethan lute solo with period flourish. “Good King Wenceslaus,” an English Christmas carol rooted in an old Finnish tune, ratcheted up the seasonal cheer.
“Here we come A-Wassailling” offered another boisterous night out with inebriated carolers, while “A Wassail, A Wassail throughout this Town!” conjured begging singers with witty lines. This was a song that I took to quite readily and would like to hear again. “What Wondrous Love is This” celebrated the joy of singing the Christian message.
In a secular turn to conclude the first half, they played “two brisk brawls” (according to their concert notes) as instrumentals: “Ladyes delight” and “Jumpe at my cozen.” They might have explained to the audience that the Elizabethan slang cozen means trick (in case you have forgotten your Shakespeare).
The second half opened with the old English favorite, “Green Sleves.” Poet and designer William Morris composed the carol “Master in this Hall” by reworking an old French tune. “Christmas Day” was a nonsensical ditty with some euphonious wit; Lemos sung it with such infectious delight that it supplied some welcome comic relief. Lemos then sang with eloquence an old Spanish ballad about shepherds guarding their flock, “Riu, Rui Chíu.”
The rest of the program was sung in French, concluding with “Noël nouvelet!”—mentioned in the good priest Rabelais’ Pantagruel (1533). I was delighted to see one of my favorite books of philosophy mentioned in the program footnotes; the French lyrics displayed their seductive assonance so wonderfully that one could hardly care what the words meant.
After vigorous applause, the six-person ensemble re-emerged with Lemos singing a Galician folk song about a young girl who says the stars are dancing, and her parents reply that she should also dance like the stars. And this put a little dance in the steps of the white-haired crowd as we departed into another long winter’s night.