If you like your Christmas music in the classic, not to say classical, style then Strange Wonders may be to your taste. Caitríona O’Leary is well-known as a performer of traditional and early music and her wealth of experience shows in her pure and expressive voice. She is supported vocally by Carla Sanabras, John Smith, Seth Lakeman and the early music ensemble, Stile Antico. Although Caitríona is a proponent of unaccompanied singing she employs the most restrained accompaniments featuring harmonium, baroque and renaissance guitars, lute and nyckelharpa.
Although the tracks are, for the most part, set to traditional tunes the influence of the church is dominant. Most of the words come from an 18th century collection by Luke Waddinge, Bishop of Ferns and concentrate on the mystical aspects of the nativity story.
The opening, ‘Ye Sons Of Men’, begins with the Annunciation and follows Mary to Bethlehem. It’s interesting that Joseph doesn’t get a look in but Caitríona has extracted a mere nine verses from the almost thirty of the original. ‘The Night Of The Nativity’ employs another six from the rather florid text but still no Joseph. ‘The Darkest Midnight In December’ begins with the shepherds but quickly moves on and quotes the theory that the world was created around 4000 BC.
There’s a different setting of ‘On Christmas Night All Christians Sing’ and Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, gets two songs to himself although his death didn’t occur until after the crucifixion but, of course, he is celebrated by the church on 26th December. ‘A Carol For St. John’s Day’ (27th December) is the longest track, weighing in at ten minutes, and conflates pretty much every story about John the Evangelist, John of Patmos and John the Apostle. If you are so minded you can spend several happy hours trying to unravel them.
There’s more carnage in the story of the Holy Innocents but peace is restored with ‘A Carol For St. Sylvester’s Day’ (31st December). Musically, Strange Wonders is firmly based in early music with overtones of folk tradition but lyrically it explores some strange byways of Christianity. The final track, ‘The Enniscorthy Christmas Carol’, a later text, brings us back to the mainstream tradition, encompassing the complete story in six verses.
Strange Wonders makes very good listening and could be easily played after The Queen’s Speech and a good lunch. Doctrinally, it might be considered suspect here and there and some of the language may even provoke quiet laughter. It does say a lot about modes of thought and expression at the time, however, and it certainly gives the listener a lot to think about.
Artist’s website: https://www.caitrionaoleary.com/
‘The Night Of The Nativity’: