On this stately and sometimes sombre work, Joan Baez is backed by traditional instruments like recorders, viols, lute, pipe organ, strings and harpsichord. The intention was to make the sound reminiscent of the various periods in which the carols were written. Noel is thus completely different from her 1960s folk recordings with the prominent acoustic guitar.
Her voice is pristine and the arrangements outstanding, especially on tracks like Little Drummer Boy and Ave Maria (a classical arrangement, sung in German). The songs are interspersed with short instrumental like Good King Wenceslas, Bring A Torch, Deck The Halls, Angels We Have Heard On High and Adeste Fidelis, that add to the medieval mood of the album.
There is plenty of variety though, as for example the mournful Mary's Wandering is followed by the brief instrumental Deck The Halls and that, in turn, by her beautiful soulful version of Away In A Manger with its gripping harpsichord sounds. Baez' voice really soars on Cantique De Noël and What Child Is This, whilst Silent Night receives a tender and subdued treatment.
One of my favourites is The First Noël with its powerful, uptempo arrangement. This wonderful album concludes with a beautiful French version of Away In A Manger. The overall atmosphere is reverent and devotional rather than joyful and festive, which makes Noël an exception amongst Christmas albums.
The CD booklet includes the history of the making of the album by arranger Peter Schickerle, the original liner notes and some lovely photos of Joan, including the cover of the original vinyl LP. Noël was a surprise for me as a long-time Baez fan since the sound is so different from both her early folk work and her later art song material.