Secret Garden has danced on a thin line between authentic Celtic and Scandinavian-inspired music and flaccid, new age claptrap for their entire existence. Thanks to a film, A Night with Secret Garden, shown on PBS in 1999, the group was able to offer an equally attractive visual component to their recorded mix of light classical, Celtic melancholy, and new age frippery. Not only could the group appeal to fans of Celtic popsters like Clannad and Enya, they could also pull in audiences entranced by the likes of Yanni and Sarah Brightman. Their first recording, Songs from a Secret Garden skirted this line very convincingly, while the follow-ups, White Stones and Dawn of a New Century, were less convincing. Once in a Red Moon, their latest effort, is something of a return to form, though if you like your Celtic sounds a bit on the less mannered side, you might steer clear of this group altogether.
The first track, "Awakening" sets the tone: one of melancholy and introspection, which fits the theme of Once in a Red Moon, which turns out to be communication with the divine. "You Lift Me Up" makes this theme explicit, its uplifting hymn-like lyrics delivered by Riverdance's Brian Kennedy; the lush strings were scored by Andrea Bocelli's musical director, Steven Mercurio. All is very gorgeous, though unfortunately I couldn't help but feel I was hearing the hit single from the soundtrack of the next Disney animated feature. That's either going to give you the willies or make you want to purchase this CD straight away; it should give you a quick read as to which side of the Secret Garden line your tastes fall on. "Silent Wings" is a melancholy little melody that depends on the interplay of Fionnuala Sherry's violin and Rolf Lovland's piano. It's been mentioned that much of Secret Garden's music sounds like the soundtrack to a romantic film, and here it is all too easy to imagine an Arthurian epic, with Morgan LaFey working her magic under a bright, full moon on the Isle of Avalon.
Scottish singer Karen Matheson, whom Sean Connery described as having "a throat surely touched by the hand of God" contributes to the stunningly beautiful "Greenwaves" and "The Gates of Dawn", and her singing provides a level of authenticity not always apparent in Secret Garden's music. "Greenwaves" is like the music of a dream, impossibly beautiful and with wonderful lyrics by songwriter/cabaret singer Ann Hampton Calloway. Ms. Calloway was asked by Barbara Streisand to pen lyrics to the Secret Garden instrumental "Heartstrings", a song which was played at Streisand's wedding to James Brolin. Streisand recorded the revised song, "I've Dreamed of You" in 1999.
The album gets back to instrumentals on the next three tracks. "Invitations" seems to explore some of the crossover between the music of Ireland/Scotland and that of Lovland's Nordic homeland. "Invitations" and "Fairytale" are the only things resembling uptempo numbers on the album. "Duo" successfully pairs Sherry's violin with the cello work of Julian Lloyd Webber. There's a bit of sameness between this track and the following one, "Belonging", with the key being minor and the mood reflective. It again raises the specter of soundtrack music, begging the question: how closely does one listen to this music? Therein lies the rub. While Lovland and Sherry, as well as most of their collaborators, are top-notch musicians and composers, they are clearly trying to create music that will reach a wide audience. Trying to create positive, affirming music that will create happiness and peacefulness in those who listen to it is a noble aspiration, but how much substance is there to these compositions? I would say that there is considerably more here to chew on here than in some of Enya's work, which is all about the beauty of her voice and sometimes lapses into preciousness. On the other hand, I rarely feel as inspired by Secret Garden as I do by the Celtic folk/rock experiments of a band like Wolfstone (up through 1996; their later albums are horrible). While certainly not "authentic" Celtic music, Wolfstone retained plenty of the spring of Celtic reels and jigs while kicking their music up a notch with electric guitar and rock drumming.
Still, there is a lot here to like, and as I said in the beginning, Secret Garden walks the line between reflective beauty and maudlin sentimentality very well on this CD. The title track, with a Middle Eastern tinge, is one of the group's finest compositions, and provides some real emotional depth. The closing piece, "Elegie" features the voices of the Celtic vocal group Anuna and a final chord that is a composite of "C" chords submitted by fans worldwide in response to the group's online request. Overall, if you enjoy the music of Clannad or Enya, you won't be disappointed. Nor will new age music aficionados, though there's more here for the serious listener than on the typical New Age recording.