Joan Baez released her first album in 1960. It was followed by three additional albums, and in 1966 came Noel, which still stands, nearly fifty years later, as one of the very best traditional holiday albums ever made. At the time, Vanguard Records had under its roof Peter Schickele, the creator of P. D. Q. Bach, and put him together with Baez to do the arrangements. It was a marriage made in heaven, one so perfect that Vanguard would keep the Schickele connection for the next two Baez albums.
This album finds Baez in terrific early voice, when her clear, light soprano seemed a miracle – completely pure and unfettered. She was a natural for such items as “I Wonder As I Wander,” “Down in Yon Forest.” “The Carol of the Birds,” and “Mary’s Wandering.” She also tackles “Ave Maria: and “Cantique de Noel,” two songs usually pounded to death by operatic sopranos, and finds a lighter side that works wonderfully well. There are some instrumental interludes from Schikele and the Orchestra that are thoroughly delightful , among them “Good King Wenceslas” and “Deck the Halls.” Schickele uses a lot of tinkly sounds in his clean and transparent orchestrations, from instruments like harp, harpsichord, and bells, so it is a good thing that recording is up to Vanguard’s usual high standard for the period. You can hear everything clearly and Baez and the instruments are in near perfect balance. You can buy the original album on vinyl or CD and there’s also a re-mastered CD with extra tracks.