Music Fusion 2000 / Cleopatra 2020
Caped Crusader tunes into the spirit of the season and gets away with his own take on carols.
Here’s a record Rick Wakeman is said to like to play himself, which speaks volumes of its quality, given that the maestro doesn’t value his latter-day oeuvre too highly. Yet one can’t go wrong with Yuletide perennials if they’re devoid of the seasonal saccharine and stretch beyond the usual Christmas repertoire – and they’re principally played on a piano, too. More so, these evergreens aren’t performed in too straightforward a way – hence the “Variations” part of the album’s title – so there’s a lot to enjoy not only in the bleak midwinter but also all year round.
Of course, it’s difficult to banish bittersweet pathos from “Silent Night” or “O Come All Ye Faithful” – especially when the piece’s solemn load is carried by synthesizers in the beginning, before acoustic ivories strike and add depth to the arrangement – but “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” feels elegantly ethereal, with Wakeman exploring the melody’s tangents, while the equally epic “Christians Awake Salute The Happy Morn” unfolds all the unexpected angles quite slowly. The filigree of “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” excluding, the less on-the-surface the carol appears to be the better the approach: that’s why “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night” seems so arresting, and the rather artificial rendering of “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” provides the record with its lowest point.
Laid down much earlier than the rest of this set and included as a bonus now, as Rick promised back in the day, “Silent Prayer” has a different dynamic about it, sublime bottom-end extending the song’s spiritual message, whereas “Amazing Grace” – taken out of the studio and onto the stage – embodies the improv idea the best. “Christmas Variations” isn’t the only Yuletide album the English artist created, yet it’s the one to retain freshness two decades on.