CD Review of A Midwinter Night’s Dream by Loreena McKennitt
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Loreena McKennitt:
A Midwinter Night’s Dream

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

ow that the holidays are behind us, thoughts of idyllic gatherings around the hearth, unspoiled snowscapes and the hearty bounty of gift exchanges quickly begin to recede as well. Fortunately, Loreena McKennitt’s done her part to ensure those memories will be rekindled long before another 12 months have passed. McKennitt, one of Canada’s most accomplished purveyors of both New Age and traditional folk fare, has an impressive track record when it comes to emulating the ambiance of the old English countryside and lofty environs that remain unaffected by the intrusion of everyday concerns. Certainly, this latest homage to Yule time tidings isn’t her first; it holds to a template established with 1987’s To Drive the Cold Winter Away, an album of seasonal songs that still sets her standard.

Ultimately, though, McKennitt’s never been all that easy to classify. While she borrows her muse from Celtic designs and nurtures a fondness for the folk music she first practiced in the clubs and coffee houses of her native Winnipeg, her albums find her aspiring to grander ambitions, replete with soaring cinematic references and instrumental arrangements bathed in a symphonic sheen. Not surprisingly, she’s also tapped various literary references, infusing her sounds with the influence of romantic poets such as Yeats, Blake and Tennyson. It’s a particular penchant that’s made her music widely popular in theatrical circles, resulting in her being commissioned to score plays and soundtracks both in Canada and abroad, increasing her sales quotient in the process and thrusting her into a rarified artistic strata that’s made each new effort a candidate for critical acclaim.

Consequently, her latest outing, A Midwinter Night’s Dream, appears a natural way to follow suit, boasting both her extravagant aural incantations and the flair for drama that’s implied in its title. As might be expected, its tunes tap tradition, a blend of holiday standards ("Good King Wenceslas," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "The Holly & The Ivy") and songs drawn from pastoral roots ("Gloucestershire Wassail," "Coventry Carol"). In her intro to the liner notes, McKennitt expresses her fondness for the season, and so it’s not surprising that her renditions convey a wide-eyed reverence that’s genuinely affecting, even despite the familiarity borne by the better-known material. As always, her voice retains its old world charm and an angelic clarity, cushioned by a blanket of instrumental orchestration that’s rich, regal and yet still sensitive to the solemnity of these sacred set-ups. Harp, hurdy gurdy, violin, cell, bouzouki and pipes confirm ethnic authenticity, but inevitably it’s McKennitt herself at the helm that makes this Dream so sweet and surreal.

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