Revels Inc., Dept. R
One Kendall Square, Building 600
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139
PHONE: 617-621-0505 FAX: 617-621-1709
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Marji Hazen
John Langstaff, artistic director of the original Revels, was ahead of his time when he put on the first Revels concert in New York in 1957. As it says in his on-line bio: "His unique concept was to incorporate traditional and medieval music, dance and drama into a theatrical performance in which the audience was involved, singing and dancing with the cast."
You can read all about Revels and their dozen or more other albums on line at their web site: http://www.revels.org/
Revels' 1997 holiday release is not the soft pretty music we usually expect in albums for the turn of the year. It's bombastic, enthusiastic, celebratory music as the title says, "to drive the dark away." Masses of singers in dancing boots that aren't edited out because they're part and parcel of the immense sound and energetic rhythms carry the listener along as they charm the sun out of its winter hiding place. Now and again there is an impression of great sound at a distance, but, in only two cuts is there soft music anywhere in this album. Even the children use their playground voices and their heaviest tread.
Loud as the music may be, it's still controlled and listenable. We are treated to the exuberant best selected from two Revels productions from Houston, Texas. In 1994 the Houston troupe shared a program of Russian and American traditional music with the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble from Russia. In 1995, they performed music of the Far North of Europe with the Karelian Folk Music Ensemble of Sweden. In 1997, selections from both programs were combined to make up the 64 minutes of CD that is titled To Drive the Dark Away.
There's a lot of color in both combinations: drums, big and little bells, whistles, horns, and quite an array of folk instruments found among those who live year round in the far North of Europe. For example, what I, at first hearing, mistook for orchestra cymbals being played like pot lids turned out to be Swedish musical scythes. The great bells really are bells, recorded in Russia and the recording inserted into the Houston program with breath-taking effect. So appropriate! And such an air of jubilation they added to the performance! There's altogether a European flavor about this musical, and that impression isn't entirely the responsibility of the Hardanger fiddler and the nyckelharpa players. What's a nyckelharpa? You have to listen to the album. There's no way I can explain it.
At first I admit I didn't think this audio-only version of such an elaborate production was going to work very well. To start with, I don't usually LIKE loud music. And I'm with Stan Freberg when it comes to tap-dancing on radio (nyet!). But by the end of the album I was convinced. Yes, this album is good listening. Unlike some earlier Revels albums that are sufficient unto themselves, though, this one made me wish it were a video instead of just an audio recording.
If this album isn't relaxing music, where does it belong in your life? Use it as merry and highly appropriate background for a solstice party. Or put it on when you want increased energy to clean the house in a hurry or to tramp cross-country for an hour with your stereo headset on. It's wonderfully international. It's acoustically interesting with all the unusual instruments and different combinations of voices. It maintains a comfortable evenness throughout, yet there's plenty of variety to keep the listener's attention. This CD is not designed for intimate listening and it will work fine on your home stereo if you turn it up loud enough (unlike some Revels albums that need to be heard through earphones to get the best ambience). It's designed for celebration, for remembering the wonderful Revels production you may have had the good luck to see, and, well, To Drive the Dark Away.
[Editors note: Most tracks are listed with both the European and English names in the liner notes. Due to the problems with creating the many special characters required for the European names, we have opted to use only the English names, where available, here.]
Edited by David N. Pyles