If Musica Reservata qualifies as northern Utah's premiere early-music ensemble, it isn't just by default. At their best they are very good indeed, and happily that is the way their holiday program Thursday at All Saints Episcopal Church often found them.
Admittedly it took them a while to warm up, as it did nearly everyone in the attractively modernistic chapel. (Leaded glass may look nice but it doesn't do much to keep out the cold.) But once on form, the array of early English songs, dances and carols they served up sparkled as brightly as a treeful of ornaments.Under the rubric "Who Liveth So Merry: Joyful Music From the British Isles," that embraced everything from medieval estampies and devotional songs to music and poetry of the Elizabethan court (including Dowland lute songs and extracts from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book) and arrangements of traditional carols.
For his part, narrator Ben Norton's poetic and scriptural recitations lent an appropriately British accent to the proceedings, especially his evocative readings from Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson and Herrick. Otherwise vocal honors were split between soprano Cheryl Hart and bass Raul West, the latter at one point even embroidering his work with a bit of impromptu juggling.
With lute accompaniment by Herald Clark, Hart's pure, white tone gave "There Is No Rose" an otherworldly elevation. No less admirable were her stately grace in Johnson's "Eliza Is the Fairest Queen" (against low winds and gamba) and controlled dramatic sense in Ravenscroft's whooping "Tomorrow the Fox Will Come to Town," "Good King Wenceslas" (as the page) and a lightly sung "The Holly and the Ivy," here not the familiar tune.
West, on the other hand, was sometimes inclined to overdo the drama. But what a joy to hear his steady bass encompass the depths of the 15th-century annunciation carol "Nova, Nova" and the full range of "The Boar's Head," the celebratory air of the first enhanced by xylophone, harp and crumhorns, with their upturned snouts.
Elsewhere the period instruments (with costumes to match) imparted a delicious tang to such things as Henry VIII's lively "Helas, Madame" - here minus its French lyric - and "Pastime With Good Company." Ditto the anonymous "The Dark Is My Delight," with its recorder consort, and the flavorful drone underlining the 13th-century "Danse Royale," clearly of Norman origin.
Other standouts included the three Dowland songs, with their faintly melancholic air, the quiet restraint of Clark's solo lute in Johnson's "Ambrosio Pavan" and harpsichordist Ruth Helm's account of Byrd's delightfully varied "The Carman's Whistle," its every rhythmic catch firmly in place.
All of which helped stave off the chill of the inevitable re-entry into our own century, and the windy outer world, via Vaughan Williams' arrangement of the Yorkshire "Wassail Song" - the gentler of two he collected under that title - here with soprano, baritone, recorders, gamba and harpsichord.
That may not be the way he heard it, but I can't think he'd have minded. Or refrained from joining in the repeated wish, "May God bless you and send you a happy new year."