Old Christmas returned performed by Passamezzo at All Saints Church, Snodland in Kent
Passamezzo's new programme Old Christmas Returned follows much the same pattern as their To Shorten Winter's Sadness in presenting music which runs the gamut of Christmas festivals. But this selection begins on Christmas Day rather than Advent and from the start a Puritan challenge to Christmas merry-making is sounded as the drunken revelries described in The Shropshire Wakes is condemned by the sour lawyer William Prynne. He saw normally sober people abandon themselves to mis-spent pastimes and feasting, neglecting the religious celebration which should be paramount. Here indeed is the dichotomy which runs through the whole programme: on the one hand the Christmas message presented in art music by the principal composers of the time, and on the other the popular ballads in which food and carousing are to the fore.
Tamsin Lewis has characteristically dug deep into the sources and has unearthed a wonderful selection of words and music. Although most of these will be unfamiliar to the audience - and indeed to the world at large - this is tempered by the fact that the ballads are often to be sung to well-known melodies. So the concert opens with the Dargason and later we hear Sellinger's Round and Bonny Sweet Robin, amongst many others of their kind.
For the more spiritual content I found the performance of the well-known Coventry Carol particularly affecting; this and the delightful Dialogue between the Angel and the Shepherds transfer from the Winter's Sadness programme. Eleanor Cramer's singing is a delight throughout: her pure line rests so well on the bed of instrumental tone which usually supports it. For those pieces in which all the singers participate, I found some unease at times in reconciling the tone of the men - elsewhere so effective in the earthy ballads - with that of the ladies. This may be just a matter of taste in that one is used to a particular blend in this music when sung by cathedral choirs. Who knows what the seventeenth century choirs sounded like, when many male singers then were the local butcher, baker and candle-stick maker? And of course domestic performance too welcomed anyone able to 'play their part'; the versatility of Passamezzo is amazing in smoothly juggling the forces required: lute and guitar, and a variety of viols and recorders, all expertly played by Richard Mackenzie, Alison Kinder, Eleanor and Tamsin. Tamsin's violin comes to the fore in leading the numerous dance tunes.
The climax of the presentation arrives as the person of Christmas takes his leave for another year, neatly turning into the populace's indignation at Parliament's banning of the festival in 1647. We hear a few of the decrees they pronounced and a subversive response in The World Turn'd Upside Down, to the tune of When the King enjoys his own again - still 13 years away. A sub-plot in the story notes that the great houses' customary hospitality to their tenants and workers was likewise banished: a Christmas tradition in the best spirit also briefly destroyed. There is a particularly touching reading asking for 'any tidings of an old, old, old, old, very old grey-bearded Gentleman called Christmas'. The Restoration arrived to general rejoicing and convivial pursuits of feasting, beer and dancing were celebrated once again.
Some aspects of the presentation deserve special note. One is the carefully chosen and plotted sequence of words and music which tells the story. Although all played their part in this, the bulk of the action was magnificently carried by Michael Palmer, much from memory. He assumed many roles ranging from curmudgeonly Puritans to drunken peasants. Space allowed him a variety of movement: at one time solemn proclamations from the pulpit, at others rustic dancing and distribution of New Year's Gifts. Others joined him from time to time, especially at the final frolicking. Of course the dramatic aspect added greatly to the experience, but to the audience this was capped by seeing people in contemporary costumes. In an old mediaeval church like All Saints it was not difficult for us to imagine how it was all those centuries ago and to turn the vision into reality.
Andrew Ashbee, December 2015
This review was of the third of a series of ten concerts of the Old Christmas Returned programme around the Christmas period in 2015