For the Christmas album Winter Tales, different high-ranking composers were invited to reimagine the music of Christmas and Chanukah, drawing inspiration from their childhoods and homelands. The album comprises 12 very personal responses to that creative challenge, all of which have something fresh and timely to say about winter’s promise of renewal and light’s power over darkness.
Winter Tales opens with Roger and Brian Eno’s Wanting to Believe – a brand new vocal track from the duo and the perfect prelude to music by composers as diverse as Peter Gregson, Víkingur Ólafsson, Hania Rani and Dobrawa Czocher, Balmorhea, Mari Samuelsen, Ane Brun, Dustin O’Halloran and Bryan Senti, ABBOTT, Vanbur, Classical Sundays and Joep Beving.
“In our dark times, we light a light and we leave it to shine”
(‘Wanting to Believe’ – Roger Eno & Brian Eno)
Roger Eno was drawn to the music of Adolphe Adam’s ‘O Holy Night’, but not to its original words. Working with his brother, composer and producer Brian Eno, he crafted ‘Wanting to Believe’, whose new, secular lyrics still express hope for the future, but a hope, he observes, that is “seen to be held within our own hands”.
Scottish cellist and composer Peter Gregson chose to reimagine Taladh Chriosta (‘Christ’s Lullaby’) – a carol traditionally sung by the islanders of the remote Outer Hebrides on Christmas Eve. The haunting tune seeped into Gregson’s consciousness when he was a child. His setting of this “innocent, introspective melody” is written for three female voices, solo violin, cello and analogue synthesiser.
Moving northwards, the album also includes two Icelandic-inspired works. Víkingur Ólafsson brings gentle rocking harmonies to his solo piano version of the lullaby Farðu að sofa fyrir mig (‘Sleep for Mama’, arranged by Snorri Sigfús Birgisson), which he describes as “music for a candlelit winter’s night, hovering between light and shadow, and eventually fading into a dream.” American pianist and composer Dustin O’Halloran and multi-instrumentalist and composer Bryan Senti, meanwhile, have drawn inspiration from the ancient hymn Hvað flýgur mér í hjarta blítt for ‘What Gently Flutters’, a track of peaceful simplicity.
Hania Rani and Dobrawa Czocher have taken the traditional Polish carol Jesus Malusieńki and clothed its melody in multiple layers of electronic and instrumental sounds. “We were looking for something very endemic to express our deepest emotions and connection with our roots,” they reflect. Dutch composer ABBOTT too has revisited a childhood favourite, arranging the 14th century carol Nu Zijt Wellekome – a song he sees as expressing the wider meaning of Christmas, the need “to welcome everybody” – for voices, solo cello and electronics.
Balmorhea, aka Texans Rob Lowe and Michael A. Muller, have created an instrumental rework of the ‘Coventry Carol’ – a song which dates back to the 16th century, when it was sung in a so-called ‘mystery play’ performed in the city of Coventry. Lowe has known it since childhood: “It always struck me as the perfect mix of warmth and darkness”, he recalls. British composer duo Vanbur – Jessica Jones and Tim Morrish – opted for a 20th century classic, ‘Carol of the Bells’, giving it an ethereal feel with a single vocal line rather than massed choral voices. Norwegian artist Ane Brun has also chosen an English text for her version of the 15th century German song Es ist ein Ros’entsprungen. She imagined ‘Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming’ being sung by a church choir but, as she explains, “in the spirit of these solitary times, I recorded all the voices myself in a little studio space in Oslo”.
Mari Samuelsen has reimagined Mitt hjerte alltid vanker (‘My heart always wanders’) for solo violin and ensemble. This Scandinavian Christmas song reminds her of Norway’s dramatic landscape, of lights visible in the distance among silent, snow-covered mountains: “It’s a piece that makes me feel safe and calm, and that is home for me”. Continuing the thread of warm, familiar memories, the Berlin-based Classical Sundays string quartet perform a tranquil arrangement of the Chanukah hymn Maoz Tzur, traditionally sung after the lighting of the menorah candles during the Jewish festival of lights.
Winter Tales ends peacefully with Sinfonia, Joep Beving’s reworking of the pastoral movement from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. “I wanted to give Bach’s gentle piece an otherworldly feel by adding layers of synth and noise,” he says. “I hope I managed to add something to the beautiful composition with this version. It was such a tremendous joy to work on.”
What is your favorite Winter Tales track? Create your own personal “Winter Tales Playlist” by choosing and ordering your favorite tracks from the album and win one of five DG bags including Winter Tales vinyl: https://www.community-playlist.com/winter-tales