This album, which Lyrichord entitles, "Unfurling Love's Creation," contains eleven chants by the mystic nun Hildegard (1098-1179). Last summer I wrote a review of a Delos disc by Voices of Ascension that offered two works by this intriguing, now quite popular figure. In that piece I described her as "… a poet, writer, scientist, diplomat and visionary whom nobles and popes consulted… Some of her admirers call her a feminist, but grudgingly concede her feminism was hardly in step with that of today – who among the Steinems and Smeals worship fervently in a male-dominated religion, much less write hymns extolling the Blessed Virgin?" Indeed. Hildegard was undeniably not only one of the most influential women of her age, but one of the most influential of its leaders – male or female, and at a time when women dared not even dream of equality. I should also add that Hildegard was canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Suffice it to say, that someone of her vast intellect, extraordinary talents, and mystical charisma, is born on this very imperfect earth about once every century!
But, you ask, what about her music? To those unaccustomed to it, let me caution them that they may initially find Hildegard's idiom alien to their ears, barren of color, a bit monotonous at times, perhaps bordering on the gloomy. However, within its direct, simple (but not simple-minded) language you find a religiosity, a solemnity, and a peacefulness that, when fully grasped, soothes and nurtures the aural senses. It's as if one is connecting to a highly spiritual realm via the captivating human conduit, Hildegard.
Soprano Norma Gentile is supported in seven of these chants by a drone chorus, which, in effect, provides a rather basic harmony, singing a sustained chord softly throughout the piece. In the remaining four selections she sings unaccompanied. Ms. Gentile delivers Hodie (track 2), a short, beautiful chant, with an enchanting sweetness and gracefulness, and sings Ave, Maria (track 4) with a mesmerizing loveliness, a loveliness that heightens the effectiveness of those moments of seemingly intense spiritual ecstasy. In two of the longer and more rewarding selections here, O clarissima Mater (track 10) and O Ecclesia (track 11) – one of Hildegard's more popular chants – Ms. Gentile sings with the same unflagging commitment to Hildegard's profound art. In fact, one is astonished by the rightness of her phrasing throughout the disc, by the subtlety in how she swells her voice to fullness and softens it to delicate, velvety pianissimos, and, most importantly, by how she so consistently captures Hildegard's simple yet elusive and vocally challenging idiom.
There are many Hildegard discs on the market today, but this Lyrichord offering surely ranks among the best. It features splendid sound, excellent notes, beautiful singing, and the music of the intriguing, the remarkable Hildegard von Bingen.
Copyright © 1999 Robert Cummings