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CD Review

Pilgrimage to Santiago

Soli Deo Gloria 701
The Monteverdi Choir/John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria Records SDG701
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The latest remarkable offering from The Monteverdi Choir and John Eliot Gardiner greets you with the scallop of Saint James: in relief on the sand-colored cover of the 35-page bound-in booklet; then on the cardboard sleeve in which the single CD with nearly 80 minutes of glorious unaccompanied choral singing comes. If you love choral polyphony, don't hesitate: buy Pilgrimage to Santiago!

In the first century after Christ, Saint James 'The Great' (that is the apostle, not the writer of the eponymous Epistle) is believed to have traveled to Spain and preached there. Following his martyrdom at the hands of Herod, his remains were taken back to Compostela in Galicia. By the eleventh century a major pilgrimage route to Santiago was established on the strength of this.

Gardiner's is not the only release representing the wonderful music from this period and phenomenon: Eduardo Paniagua directs a small team in El Camino De Santiago by Alfonso X El Sabio (Pneuma Classics 680); Anonymous 4's Miracles Of Sant'iago – Codex Calixtinus (Harmonia Mundi 907156) has only a couple of items that are also present on this Gardiner CD; and Philip Pickett and the New London Consort had a two-disc Cantigas de Santa María – Pilgrimage to Santiago (L'Oiseau-Lyre 433148-2 – nla). If you're looking for a place to start and savor the majesty and beauty of some of the music associated with the pilgrimage and which was being written at the time, this Soli Deo Gloria CD is as good as any.

The selection of music is, of course, expert. It's as representative as any 21 items can be. The names which most people will recognize, Lassus, Victoria, Palestrina and Dufay, are supplemented by glorious compositions by Clemens Non Papa (1495-1570) and from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat and Codex Calixtinus. This is a twelfth century illuminated manuscript, an anthology compiled to offer 'background' and advice for the pilgrims. It's also a document that attests to the extent to which Spain had already become much more cosmopolitan than is often realized. Pilgrimage to Santiago celebrates the not insignificant part which the prominence of Compostela played in this. The urbanity of The Monteverdi Choir's music-making with Gardiner mirrors the urbanity of the Compostela community and shared experience. As early as the 1430s Spanish composers and musicians were traveling in turn to Rome, another important pilgrimage site of course. From there works by the likes of Lassus and Palestrina were brought back to Spain; indeed manuscripts of their music are still to be found (some badly decayed) in Cathedral libraries throughout Spain. But the cultural exchange was also with the Netherlands, France and Flanders. Hence the inclusion here of works by Dufay and Jean Mouton (who certainly deserves a disc to himself: there isn't one).

The singing is clean, majestically-paced and evocative. The Monteverdi Choir and Gardiner, of course, know all about pilgrimages, having undertaken a mighty one of their own in 2000 to perform all of Bach's church cantatas on the dates for which they were written. The music that emerged from that experience is magnificent too. But the enterprise was, shall we say, a fraught one (through no fault of Gardiner's). This single CD with music that could hardly be of greater contrast – catholic and introverted, reverent and at times ethereal – seems yet to be a serene rejoicing after that storm. Listen to the exquisite 'Nesciens mater' by Mouton, for example. Or the ecstatic 'O virgo splendens' from the Llibre Vermell. Renaissance polyphony at its best!

Gardiner and The Monteverdi Choir themselves made the Compostela pilgrimage too. It's hard not to hear the fact in their sublime yet practical approach, which is sustained across a good dozen styles. Although recorded at All Hallows Church in London on their return, the music has the atmosphere of what must – to pilgrims over hundreds of years – have been a faint sense of superiority; or of justified achievement: the route is a long and arduous one. Storms rage to the north and west in the Bay of Biscay and Finisterre. This music relieves fear in any storm. John Eliot Gardiner makes the point in his written introduction that "Mediaeval men and women had the time to become absorbed, the capacity to be enraptured. Perhaps they were more content to live in the present… with both eyes fixed on the matter in hand." Such an approach is clear in this sanguine music-making by the two dozen-strong Monteverdi Choir (with Elin Manahan Thomas, soprano) and Gardiner – relaxed, convinced and luxuriant to the last note.

In sum, this is one of those discs whose impact is so strong that you simply want to play it over again on hearing that last lambent note – appropriately from a Sanctus by Clemens Non Papa – die away in the perhaps ever so slightly over-reverberant acoustic. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey

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