Llibre Vermell / Millenarium
EL LLIBRE VERMELL • Christophe Deslignes, dir; Millenarium; Namur CCh; Psallentes; Les Pastoureux • RICERCAR 260 (79:30 Text and Translation)
“The Red Book,” as it is known from its 19th-century binding, is the only volume that survived when Montserrat abbey was burnt by Napoleon’s troops in 1811, but only because its borrower had not returned it (and his heirs only sold it back to its rightful owners in 1885). It includes a unique collection of 10 songs, intended to be sung and danced by pilgrims who came to venerate the reputedly miraculous statue of the Blessed Virgin and child that had been displayed there since the late 12th century. The collection has been recorded at least 21 times, in addition to single songs done many times over. The first piece is a chant antiphon (sung in canon) in unique Catalan chant notation, but the rest are Ars Nova in style. Two of them are brief canons, while the remaining seven (two set to vernacular texts) are strophic in structure. The first two recordings under Thomas Binkley and Jose Luis Ochoa de Olza (both later on CD) included generally one strophe of each song; since then, most songs have been recorded complete except Mariam matrem virginem , for which all five strophes are included only in this and two other known recordings (four of the complete sets have not been checked). Jordi Savall (13:3) was the first nearly complete recording, lacking only two strophes of Mariam matrem virginem . Next was Berry Hayward, who performed the two vernacular pieces only instrumentally. Philip Pickett (16:4) dragged everything out to 70 minutes without fillers or the two missing verses of the same hymn. Brigitte Lesne (18:6) offered the best version since Savall, matching his panoply of performing forces including children. Ensemble Micrologus on Discant 1008 was recorded uniquely at the abbey of Montserrat and furnished the first complete version of the same hymn. Carlos Magraner on Licanus 0201 also offered that hymn complete.
Now Christophe Deslignes, like the last two, brings together a variety of performers to elicit the ambiance of a gathering of pilgrims celebrating their devotion. There are 20 tracks here, the other 10 tracks offering an opening procession of pilgrims, five Gregorian chants, and four instrumental pieces, all in the spirit of the book. Unlike some recorded sets that preserve the order of the book, this one does not, though Ad mortem festinamus , the danse macabre that breaks the pattern of Marian devotion dominating the book, always comes last. The two brief canons, one after the other in the book, have been recorded a couple of times as a single canon (by Joel Cohen and Brigitte Lesne) or at least in sequence, but here they are separated. Like several other successful versions, this ensemble of men, women, and children accompanied by instruments elicits the ambiance of a disparate group of pilgrims spending the night in the open space before the abbey church, celebrating in folk style the devotion that brought them together. To appreciate their situation, it helps to picture the monastery perched on the side of a mountain more than halfway up to the 4,000-foot peak. Access is roundabout even now and must always have been difficult at best. Yet it has always drawn hordes of pilgrims and visitors. (Stunning photos can be found easily by a Web search.)
Deslignes’s version ranks with the best. The Discant and Licanus discs mentioned above are also fine, though children’s voices would have added something more. Among older versions, Savall and Lesne are still fine. A good and inexpensive resource for further understanding is the facsimile, edition, and commentary by Maricarmen Gómez i Muntané, El Llibre Vermell de Montserrat , which includes an English summary in the Catalan edition of 2000 (the Spanish edition of 1990 had no English summary). Don’t pass up Deslignes’s rousing presentation.
FANFARE: J. F. Weber
Catalog Number: RIC260
Composer: Anonymous, Gradual of Ali Anonymous, Xavier Terrazza
Conductor: Christophe Deslignes
Orchestra/Ensemble: Millenarium, Namur Chamber Choir