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While just about every other form of music has at least a few Christmas albums, we film score fans get somewhat gipped.  Sure, there's Williams' Home Alone scores, as well as a few with that wintry spirit in them like Batman Returns, but never a full blown Christmas CD.  That's changed now, with the prominent film composer Anne Dudley's adventure into the realm of classical music, which produced this album - and it's definitely fit for the holidays.  Basically she visited some of the most ancient hymn tunes (mostly Christmas carols) and added her own interpretations, ranging from Baroque splendor to understated atonality.  I guess the most revolutionary thing about this is its tone - 60 minutes of hymn tunes, and not a major chord anywhere in sight.  Some may be put off by the Gothic gloominess of it, but it really is excellent, demonstrating Dudley's huge compositional skill.  And you really shouldn't worry about it having no dramatic depth or enough "Wagnerian climaxes," because a lot of it sounds like it could have been written for a film, most notably something like her earlier American History X.  Dudley blends a huge orchestra and choir together, lending the album an epic scope.  Unless you're totally put off by either atonal music or hymn tunes, you'd be hard-pressed to find many faults with this extravagant album.


Track by Track Analysis:
1. Canticles of the Sun and Moon (5:40)
Dudley picks an excellent track to open her album - it introduces many of the concepts to be heard later.  The most striking aspect of the piece is her seamless blending of a traditional choral hymn, brooding orchestral underscore, and Mexican (!) instruments.  Not exactly what I was expecting, but it adds a great ambience.  It opens with the chorus singing a straightforward version of a non-Christmas hymn over a minimalistic xylophone motif, climaxing in huge Alleluias.  After they subside, Dudley turns to orchestra and ethnic instruments exclusively.  She creates a great paradox by having the orchestra play almost a dissonant Baroque arrangement of the same hymn, but with the percussion racing over it.

2. Veni Sancte Spiritus (4:17)
The next track is a traditional movement of a Catholic mass, inventively scored for a capella voices.  The effects created here are quite staggering - at some points the chorus breaks into almost a scherzo-like pace, at others it forms towering mutation chords, some getting atonal and unstable.

3. From Darkness to Light (4:49)
Not based on any particular piece or hymn - composed exclusively by Dudley, this is a heartfelt lament scored for string orchestra.  The style here gives a brief preview of the orchestral grandeur to be found in the later Three Chorales in Common Time - it's quite classical, almost Baroque, but hovering around the unstable line between tonality and dissonance.  Sections of it are tragically moving, written in the vein of John Williams' epic Schindler's List.  As the title indicates, it somewhat moves to a more uplifting tone towards the end, but it's still very dreary.

4. Veni Emmanuel (5:05)
One of the best tracks present is this modern reworking of the ancient "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" Advent hymn.  The chorus sings the lyrics pretty much like any other arrangement, although one section has the sopranos doing the equivalent of a mutation stop on the pipe organ (1 and 3/8 octaves up).  However, the main attraction here is Dudley's rapturous orchestral accompaniment, relying heavily on piano for glistening percussive effects.  The chorus of the hymn's accompaniment is a huge array of pulsing strings, swirling harps, and pounding percussion.

5. Tallis' Canon (7:00)
This piece's most famous use was probably in Ralph Vaughan-Williams' concert arrangement of it earlier this century.  Dudley's strikes out on its own, sounding nothing at all like a merry round.  Instead she ingeniously mutates the piece into a dirge-like chorale full of dissonant chords that reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith's The Omen score (although not THAT violent.)  In fact, the string-based opening sounds exactly like a score for a horror movie.  Another highlight of the album.

6. The Holly and the Ivy (5:08)
I'm sorry, people, but I really can't stand this track.  Instead of giving the piece the huge orchestral performance it deserves, she delves into Philip Glass-like minimalism, playing some major chords in a totally unrelated key in woodwinds, strings, and synth keyboard (which really makes it sound bad.)  Then, when the noble tune is played in horns, it's completely lost all of its splendour.  Thankfully, though, this is the only real dud on Dudley's album.

7. The Testimony of John (5:09)
Although it seems at first to not be based on a hymn, that will quickly change.  The opening section is a haunting passage for solo soprano, singing the first few verses of St. John's Gospel.  It's accompanied by a subdued pipe organ - don't look for the huge mixture and reed stops, because the orchestration sticks to the principal and woodwind stops.  After this is a completely unrelated second section.  It's actually a Jewish Chanukah (sp?) folk song, played on hammered dulcimer with percussion.  In between segments of this played on its native orchestration, Dudley inserts a rich string quartet playing a more Baroque arrangement of the music.

8. Canzonetta (2:11)
One of the most Christmas-like pieces here, this is completely based on a melody called the French Carol, played by an intoxicating string quartet.  Those who have heard it before will only recognize short snippets of the main melody - I didn't even realize what the piece was until the only real statement of the theme at the end.

9. Coventry Carol (4:40)
Some may despise this because of its grating atonality, but for me it's one of the main highlights of the album.  I'm not very familiar with the Coventry Carol, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it wasn't originally written for a dissonant string orchestra.  The appeal of this is much like the earlier "From Darkness to Light" track in that the atonality eventually becomes a tragically moving ode, but now with chorus.

10. Prelude (2:41)
Dudley probably didn't have to do much to this cue - it's one of Bach's more well-known preludes, probably originally scored for pipe organ.  Here it's adapted to a woodwind ensemble, which sounds quite nice, and it's played very straightforward with very few of Bach's typical embellishments.

Three Chorales In Common Time:
11. Three Strings (2:54)
Here we come to the main highlight of the album.  Dudley composed these three chorales herself, not looking for much ancient influence.  They are all based on the same theme, a huge chordal monstrosity that slaps the emotion into you like a wet noodle.  Not to say it's manipulative, but I don't think the composer, once she had discovered the theme, needed to do much more to it.  This chorale is something of a prelude to the other two, scored for orchestra as well as three solo strings.

12. Eight Woodwind (4:15)
Dudley gives her theme a more spirited arrangement here, highlighted by chords in the wind ensemble, with minimalistic arching string arpeggios.  Although it's quite impressive in its own right, it's nothing compared to....

13. Sixteen Voices (7:04)
This is the point that Anne Dudley REALLY lets loose.  After a short gong introduction, the chorale picks up where the last one left off with the string arpeggios and Baroque woodwind chord progressions.  Where it really shines are the places with the full chorus, finally giving the chorale theme some words.  I think this piece is one of the most moving and impressive in the entire Dudley canon, and the midsections where the chorus takes over are probably some of the best passages to come out of a composer's mind this decade.

Overall, this is one of my favorite new album releases of 1999, filled with impressively tragic moments, as well as bizarre permutations on familiar hymn melodies.  I can safely recommend this album to just about anyone, and it's destined for many, MANY spins in my CD player.



 
Ancient and Modern
Music Rating 9/10
Packaging/Liner Notes 7/10
Orchestral Performance 9/10
Sound Quality 9/10
Length 10/10


Ancient and Modern is Copyright 1999 by Angel Records.  Review Copyright 1999 by Andrew Drannon.  All Rights Reserved.