Nobody could pull off a record like If on a Winter's Night... except the ol' Sting-meister.
That isn't to say exactly that designing a seasonal record far removed from Christmas-music convention (and from Christmas itself, for that matter) to explore folk and literary traditions from five centuries is beyond the grasp of other artists. Certainly there are scores of rustic traditional ensembles out of England — the outstanding a cappella group The Watersons comes to mind — that have delved into such wintry fascination. But few have the commercial clout that Sting has at his fingertips to fashion a recording like this with such high-profile possibilities.
Owing more to his 2006 Renaissance-flavored lute-fest Songs From the Labyrinth than any of his pop recordings with or without The Police, Winter's Night is light in musical tone but weighty and often brooding in its narrative detail.
Electric instruments are scarce as Sting works with a core ensemble of acoustic guitar, cello, violin (from the extraordinary Newcastle traditionalist Kathryn Tickell) and recorder, although the music regularly swells with jazz and Eastern references (including the mix of oud and harmonium on There Is No Rose of Such Virtue).
Similarly, the repertoire covers works by Henry Purcell, J.S. Bach and Franz Schubert, newly designed music for a Robert Louis Stevenson poem (the dark and decidedly non-yuletide Christmas at Sea) and a pair of Sting originals (including a melodeon-charged remake of The Hounds of Winter).
Sting might simply seem as if he's up a tree to many as he forges music that is not simply for winter but for the very dead of winter. He walks a tightrope between celebration of, as termed in the album's liner notes, "a light and life at the centre of the darkness that is winter" and overly precious folky pretension.
But there is an undeniable appeal — intimacy, almost — in the icy, ancient atmosphere that Sting creates. On The Hurdy Gurdy Man (not the '60s Donovan hit, but a mix of Schubert and a Wilhelm Miller poem), Sting sings with earnest weariness against an ever-so-slight arrangement of guitar, melodeon and violin. Ditto for the chamber-style stateliness that he lends to Purcell's Now Winter Comes Slowly.
Warmer in its wintry feel is the 17th-century song Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming by Michael Praetorius. Although adorned with an orchestral and choir arrangement, the song is colored just as profoundly by Tickell on Northumbrian pipes and the whispery moan that is Sting's preferred vocal accent throughout the record.
Sure, a ghost of Christmas past is summoned when the melody of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen blows through the otherwise Halloween-themed Soul Cake. But that's the extent of familiar holiday spirits on If on a Winter's Night ..., an album that serves more as a log in the fire for the frosty evenings ahead.