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CD Review

Chants de la cathédrale de Benevento

  • Office of the Adoration of the Cross
  • Antienne:
  • Otin to stauronO quando in cruce
  • Proskinumen ton stauron/Adoramus crucem tuam/Psaume 22: Deus Deus meus respice in me
  • Ton stauron sou proskinumen/Crucem tuam/Psaume 148: Laudate Dominum
  • Enumen sou Xriste/Laudamus te Christe/Psaume 149: Cantate Domino canticum novum
  • Monition: panta ta ethni/Omnes gentes
  • Répons: Amicus meus osculi me tradit/Verset: Retulit triginata argenteis
  • Easter Vigil
  • Acclamation: Doxa en ipsistis / Gloria in excelsis
  • Monition: Si quis catechumenus est
  • Mass for Easter Day
  • Introit: Maria vidit angelum
  • Kyrie: Ad monumentum Domini
  • Alleluia:
  • Pascha nostrum
  • Resurrexi tamquam & Laudate Pueri
  • Offertoire: Angelus Domini descendit de celo
  • Communion: Qui manducaverit
Ensemble Organum/Marcel Pérès
Harmonia Mundi Musique D'Abord HMA1951476
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Ensemble Organum and its learned, energetic, director Marcel Pérès are renown for the gifts they have of presenting potentially remote or otherwise "retiring" music. They render it both approachable and as central to the development of the appropriate early Western traditions. The performers do not try to dress up or disguise the essence of such music as is to be heard on this outstanding CD reissue of unaccompanied chant from the Benevento cathedral chants. In this approach lies perhaps their greatest strength: the music (with its unfamiliar modes; the resulting, sometimes almost caustic, intervals; the drone – vocal drone at that; and the language(s) used) is conveyed as living music, authentic – at times almost frighteningly so – full of raw power and determined direction.

For all that, this music must be in part reconstructed, it is never an "exhibit". Rather, Ensemble Organum invites us in to assist at what could have been a living repetition of a ritual, a celebration, an unassuming exposition of what the music was intended to have revealed originally. It's stripped of the gilt or guise which can accrue when seen through modern eyes, heard with modern ears. On the one hand there is great consequent simplicity. On the other an audacity, whose confidence allows us to penetrate preconceptions and appreciate how the music must be assumed to have sounded to those who first heard and sang Ambrosian chant in Southern Italy from roughly the 7th century until it was supplanted by the Gregorian chant of the Roman rite in the 11th century.

The three groups of liturgical chant presented on this hour-and-a-quarter of glorious music are from the most solemn of rites: the Crucifixion and Easter. So there is corresponding darkness, sobriety and doleful reflection. The appellation, "Beneventan" indicates both the script prevalent in these centuries for the purpose of notation; and the geographical center of the Lombard rule in the south of the peninsula in the town north east of Naples. It's tempting to hear a defiance against the imposition of Roman mores in the (gently) declamatory style of this music as it both unfolds the Easter story and strangely peacefully comments upon it. Reflection then may suggest that in fact it's suffering in general that is being lamented.

Because of the physical suppression, destruction and eradication by the church at Rome, few Ambrosian/Beneventan manuscripts have survived. Those that do are mostly fragmented… and interleaved with Gregorian chant manuscripts to be given the (implicit) status of afterthoughts, adjuncts and outmoded appendices. It's music from Manuscripts 30 and 40 from the collection in the Biblioteca Capitolare (Verona) that form this persuasive collection.

The music is expertly sung of course. Intonation is communicative of the essence of each text. As is articulation. Perhaps most impressive is the way in which Pérès and Ensemble Organum project the totality of each collection as a unified whole. They are unified "services", after all: a mass, and office and the Easter Vigil. But so remote must the idiom be – even to experienced singers and scholars like these – that it would have been easier to concentrate on the particularities of each segment at the expense of allowing listeners to appreciate the wonder of the whole. This provides an analogous way for the listener to find ways of "attaching" to the (essence of) the music as can be the case in symphonic listening. Such an achievement is part of the gift of these performers alluded to above.

The texts are in Greek as well as Latin; this reflects the Byzantine influence. It also suggests an openness and breadth which is amplified by the confidence and obvious dedication to and familiarity with the music by the Ensemble's eight members performing here. Climaxes there are; though never over wrought. Tenderness too; though not maudlin. And, strikingly, there is a spirit of exultation and poetic assuredness in the confessional purpose of the Easter liturgy which is amply captured and conveyed by the singers. Although not explicit from the outset, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of these "invocations" of music in excess of 1,200 years old is the presence of melismata; yet in a way the draws not a scrap of attention to itself. Elaboration and "ornamentation" are there. But not gratuitously so. They form part of the proto-symphonic whole.

The acoustic helps the performers by neither underpinning their work with spurious echo or atmosphere, nor smothering the clarity of their diction. It thus sounds more like a studio recording than a church one. The CD nowhere indicates where this was; only that the recording took place in 1993. So it displays pleasing clarity and sense of calm presence more than 20 years later. The booklet is minimal and concentrates on the liturgical setting and context. It lacks texts. Precious little else from such early repertoire exists. Pérès and the Ensemble are expert in the field and can always be turned to for reliable yet highly expressive accounts of such amazing music. This particular music exists on no other currently available recording. It can be safely snapped up if you missed it the first time: it starts as as fascinating listening, but quickly assumes a life and compulsion of its own that's hard to resist.

Copyright © 2015, Mark Sealey