Madeline MacNeil – The Holly and the Ivy: Christmas Music for Hammered Dulcimer and Voice 8.0

Reviewed by on 30th November, 2018

As someone partly brought up in Hungarian culture and near the pulsating history of its folk music, the hammered dulcimer is close to my musical heart. It was quite surprising to learn, then, that in the United States the instrument has quite different, and decidedly more innovative, connotations.

While there was a folk instrument barn dance tradition of dulcimers in the nineteenth century, by the mid twentieth century the instrument was essentially dead, practised by a few ageing musicians, with little presence even in the folk community. Then, at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, the instrument caught the eye of a young folkie named Sam Rizetta, who set about reviving it and started building new hammered dulcimers with substantial changes. His band, Trapezoid, spent the seventies making music more akin to experimental English folk than his earnest American folk forebears.

And of course, he’s featured here as one of the main dulcimer players, creating an evocative, minimal backing full of perfectly recorded creaky reverberation, along with other local folk luminaries like flute professor Frances Lapp Averitt. And yet, however much focus there is on the hammered dulcimer on the packaging, the big surprise here is how much this album is a truly fantastic vocal album.

Madeline McNeil is a remarkable voice practitioner, a schooled folk soprano of exceptional assurance and clarity, approaching almost Julie Andrews-like qualities in her balanced poise. She doesn’t quite have the tonal range or power to pull off “O Holy Night”, nor the operatic glissando necessary to do “Angels We Have Heard On High” justice, but they’re truly the few moments when she doesn’t manage perfectly. At its best, like in her version “Lullaby from Poland”, her voice together with the sparse dulcimer backing makes haunting masterpieces of these often quite tired old carols. It’s a little folkie Christmas miracle.

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Finely recorded reverb folk

When this album works it does so amazingly well – hammered dulcimer and voice in perfect coordination, lovely singer-songwriter production and some of the most haunting renditions of traditional carols ever heard. A slightly patchy set list and some ill-judged choral selections bring it down a step, but it's still an unassuming treasure.

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