LA TRAVERSE MIRACULEUSE. French-Canadian Sea Songs.
Meredith Hall (soprano); Les Charbonniers de l'Enfer; La Nef/Sylvain Bergeron.
ATMA Classique ACD2 2588 (F) (DDD) TT: 52:25

Chantez! As a damn-near monolingual Anglophone, I wondered for a long time about the origins of the word "shantey" or "chantey," the songs of sailors during the age of sail. To me, it obviously linked to the French chanter (to sing), which a quick side-trip to the OED confirmed, but since I knew only American and British shanties, I got confused. Perhaps English-speaking sailors picked up a rough French when visiting French ports, Spanish when they put in to Spanish ones (as in the traditional song "Spanish Ladies"), and so on. The simpler explanation never occurred to me. The French, and in particular the French-Canadians, were sailors, too.

La traverse miraculeuse ("the miraculous crossing") presents the French-language shanties of Quebec and maybe even the Maritimes. English and American shanties pretty much divide into work songs -- where strong rhythms set the pace of the task -- and songs of rest, tunes that unfold slowly and forever like a calm sea. The French have a little more variety -- fast reels and slow valses, sentimental ballads, war songs, and so on. Some of the music reminded me, not surprisingly, of the Cajun fiddle tunes in southeastern and south central Louisiana. If you remember your Longfellow, you know why. So for me, who had lived longer in New Orleans than I'd lived anywhere else, the CD represented a bit of a homecoming.

There's no such thing as a weak track on this disc. The tunes are wonderful, the performances superb, and the selections and arrangements thought-provoking. The Quebec sort-of folkies Les Charbonniers de l'Enfer (the charcoal-burners of hell), a five-man group specializing in the traditional music of the province, have teamed with La Nef, essentially a Renaissance consort. Meredith Hall, a singer of folk, Renaissance, and Baroque music, can be heard on one cut. Basically, it's the same sort of viewpoint as The Baltimore Consort with Custer LaRue. As the years have passed, Renaissance groups have often branched out and brought their musical approach into other areas. I must say, however, that La Nef, Les Charbonniers, and Hall blow the Baltimore Consort out of the water. Take that, Lord Baltimore!

On a program of gems, my favorite is the most elaborate -- the English and the French war for North America, as seen from both sides: "The Battle of Quebec," describing the death of Wolfe, and "Le combat de la Danaë," about a naval battle. The English win, the French lose, but nobody's happy, although the French can't wait to get another crack at the foe. Meredith Hall in "The Battle of Quebec" and Les Charbonniers, taking the role of French sailors, trade verses. The music of the Danaë crew resembles astonishingly closely the music of the (mostly) hated British, showing once again that your own family provokes the strongest feelings in you, one way or the other.

Hall seems a little iffy about the pitch when she starts out, but quickly settles in. La Nef plays flawlessly. The arrangements, mainly by Sylvain Bergeron, Lisa Ornstein, and Seán Dagher, show great flair and imagination, slipping in modern dissonances without any sense of jar or even calling attention to themselves. I love Les Charbonniers. They're not Pinzas and Domingos, by any means, but, man, can they sing! There's an appealing burr to most of the voices and when they break out into harmony, hold on to your hats. One of the most appealing albums I've heard this year.

S.G.S. (April 2009)