This disc provides a survey of the gradual development of polyphonic music from Gregorian chant in England and France during the period from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. Two of the four singers here – Maria Andrea Parias and Sarah Richards – were responsible for the selection of the pieces, derived from manuscripts from as far afield as Worcester, Cambridge, Oxford, London, Montpellier, Bamberg and Wolfenbüttel, and for the extremely informative and extensive booklet notes: six pages analysing the music in its historical context.
The booklet notes quotes an account of the tenth century monk Thierry of Amorbach of performances given by four brothers of the Abbey of Saint-Benoit de Fleury, "two of whom kept to the ‘usual singing’ while the other two ‘provided the accompaniment’." This account was used as the basis for reconstructing some of the organa given here from the Winchester Troper preserved in the Corpus Christi College library in Cambridge. Very convincing these reconstructions sound too – although, as is always the way with students of mediaeval music, there will be as many different views on the merits of any reconstruction as there are musicologists to provide it. The later works given here are based on manuscripts which require a lesser degree of editorial intervention, although again there may be disagreements as to the style of performance. Those here are based on Thierry of Amorbach’s account, with two voices to a part in the earlier polyphonic pieces.
The only real point of disagreement with these performances will therefore lie with the use of female voices – which will certainly not be what the mediaeval monks would have expected. However, since two of the performers here are also the editors of the works, it would be churlish to complain, especially when they sing so well. We have become accustomed to hearing women singing in pieces of this period as a result of recordings of the music of Hildegard of Bingen, but these rather plainer and earlier pieces benefit from the same sort of treatment. The gently clashing ‘harmonies’ in such pieces as the opening Christus resurgens reach out across the centuries to join hands with Tavener - the modern one, that is - and time is annihilated.
Most of the music here is anonymous, but it is interesting to come across a contrafactum - new words set to an existing song - based on the love song Bien doit chanter by the Blondel de Nesle familiar to history students as the troubadour who supposedly rescued Richard Coeur de Lion from captivity. This ‘pious’ version is sung unaccompanied, and rather charmingly spends half of its first verse decrying Blondel’s more conventional version of passion before getting down to the more serious business of praising the Virgin Mary. The song Worldes blis begins unaccompanied, but then expands to include the whole ensemble.
With the later works on this disc we enter into more familiar territory, and in the ‘motet’ Hare, hare, hye we find a drinking song of the sort encountered in such works as Carmina Burana and which David Munrow first introduced to the modern world some forty and more years ago. The words include such lines as “It is a miracle that those Normans haven’t thrown up.” The final cadence of the Alleluia Nativitas is borrowed from a similar piece by Pérotin, and pieces like this bear more than a passing resemblance to music from the Notre Dame school. It is with the rise of the music of this school from 1275 onwards that this fascinating and rewarding survey comes to an end.
The singing, as has been observed, is extremely good. The recording is also excellent, with plenty of echo but without excess resonance to cloud the crystal clarity of the individual voices. The booklet note draws attention to distant bird noises from outside the church, despite the recordings being made late in the evening and at night. One would like to think they were attracted by the music. In any event their vocal contributions are hardly detectable and need no excuse.
The booklet provides full texts in the original languages – not only Latin, but mediaeval French and English as well – with excellent translations into modern English, modern French and German. The sleeve-notes were originally written in French, but the English translation is both idiomatic and informative, and give a very full and detailed list of all the sources employed. A model of how such material should be presented.Paul Corfield Godfrey