The Wilde Roses CD, by the duo of the same name and due for release on January 26th 2018, is a two-dimensional snapshot of the work of two multi-dimensional performers: multi-instrumentalists, singers, composers and dancers Anna Tam and Emily Alice Ovenden. Many of the songs actually folkier than the archaic instrumentation might suggest. But then, both Anna and Emily have a wide range of training and experience. While this CD reflects their interest in medieval and Renaissance music, some of the songs here will certainly be known to long-time folkies, though arrangements like these are not often heard in folk clubs. As well as their vocal work, the duo are featured here on nyckelharpa (a Scandinavian instrument somewhat related to the hurdy gurdy), viola da gamba, hurdy-gurdy, recorders and drum.
Unfortunately the promotional copy and PR sheet I have don’t include a lyric sheet or information about the songs, so, in order to give a better idea of what the album is like, I’ll be a little more discursive than usual on their background.
1 ‘Edi Beo Thu Heven Queene’ is a gymel, a two-part polyphonic composition from the 13th century in praise of the Virgin Mary, ‘Heaven’s Queen’ and may come from Llanthony Priory, in the Vale of Ewyas.
2 ‘Henry Martyn’ is a version of the ballad (250 in the Child collection, but sometimes taken to be related to Child 167, ‘Sir Andrew Barton’) that largely follows the version recorded by Phil Tanner in 1937, though with at least one extra verse (derived, I think, from Sam Larner’s version ‘The Lofty Tall Ship’). While some old folkies will have grown accustomed to the chromatic descending run in the third line favoured by Joan Baez in her ’60s version, this version sticks to the more strictly modal tune used by Tanner. The vocal harmonies here are supported by drum and hurdy-gurdy.
3 ‘Will Yow Walke The Woods Soe Wilde’ features vocals from both, with recorder and nyckelharpa. The cheerful melody is well known from pieces by Byrd, Gibbons and even Dowland, who quoted it in his song ‘Can She Excuse My Wrongs’.
4 The motet ‘Dou Way Robin’ is sung – mostly in Latin – in an unaccompanied, polyphonic arrangement. It’s extraordinary how effectively two voices – well, these two voices – can execute material like this.
5 ‘Cauda’ is an instrumental piece featuring nyckelharpa and recorder.
6 ‘Riddles Wisely Expounded (Inter Diabolus Et Virgo)’ is one of the “riddling” ballads noted by Child (Child 1) – the Latin title derives from an early version where the devil’s evil intentions are foiled by a virgin’s wise answers to his riddles. This version resembles one I remember sung by Peggy Seeger, though melodically more ornate. The same tune is also sometimes heard used for ‘The Cruel Sister’, and usually includes the discreetly suggestive repeated line “lay the bent to the bonny broom“, in keeping with later versions where the riddles are posed by an aspiring suitor. The song is sung in a suitably traditional style with harmonies on the repeated 2nd and 4th lines, and accompanied at times by sparse pizzicato viola da gamba.
7 ‘Cold and Raw’ is a spikier version of a song I always associate with June Tabor, though it goes back to the 17th century. The rhythmically insistent drum and nyckelharpa actually suits the song very well, much as I love Tabor’s smoother interpretation.
8 Charles Wesley’s text to ‘And It Can Be That I Should Gain?’ is usually heard to Thomas Campbell’s melody ‘Sagina’. The tune used here sounds as if it might have been written much earlier, but Discogs and the sleeve notes seem to indicate that it was written by Anna and Emily. A lovely tune anyway, beautifully sung and accompanied.
9 ‘My Lady Greensleeves’ is indeed that ‘Greensleeves’, not the Morris tune. Harmony and solo vocals are augmented by recorder and viola da gamba.
10 The ‘Song of Amhairghin Glungheal’ features an extraordinary vocal performance with only drums for accompaniment. The poet and judge Amhairghin Glύngheal is said to have been one of the leaders of the Gaelic invasion of Ireland.
11 ‘Alas Departynge is Ground of Woo’, a mournful Middle English piece that can be found in the Bodleian’s Ashmole collection, is sung polyphonically and without accompaniment.
12 ‘An Awhesyth’ is a Cornish song closely related to ‘The Lark In The Morning’, and collected several times in the late 19th century by Baring-Gould. The version here is a sprightly minor tune, though I’ve heard the same tune taken slower as an instrumental. The vocals are augmented with drum and hurdy gurdy, complete with additional vocals from Petroc the lark. It’s a great tune that might just creep into my own repertoire.
13 ‘Man Mai Longe Lives Weene’ is a surprisingly cheerful-sounding Middle English meditation on mortality from, I think, the 13th century. The vocals here are augmented by recorder and nyckelharpa.
I guess this instrumentation and choice of material will appeal to some more than others, as will the high-register vocalization and archaic pronunciation. If you like medieval music as much as I do, though, you’ll find much to enjoy here.
Even the more familiar material here comes over as more ‘classical’ (in its loosest sense) than as folk, but is none the worse for that. The instrumental work is excellent and cleverly arranged. Both Anna and Emily seem to focus mostly on the top end of their vocal ranges, and sometimes the sound is a little strained in consequence. At other times it has an ethereal quality that recalls not only early music, but later church music by Victoria or Palestrina. I hope to hear more of their work as a duo, but I think I also need to check out their other work, such as the back catalogue of the Medieval Babes and the band PYTHIA, which originally featured Emily as a vocalist. Who can resist a band described as “symphonic MetaI“? Probably not me…
Artist’s website: wilderoses.com
‘Edi Beo Thu Heven Queene’ – live: