Heavenly Creatures - Female Voices of the Middle Ages
We remember Hildegard if nothing else for her 1980s "revival", or perhaps from Anonymous 4's hit 1997 recording featuring "Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula" (with the provocative title 11,000 Virgins). Her writings, her prophecies and visions, her poetry and music, and her founding and nearly 30-year leadership of the convent at Rupertsberg established Hildegard as one of the more remarkable and influential figures of her time; the question today is how to best present her music--long sequences of unison chant--which of course was intended for worship and prayer, not for "performance". Some have answered that question by arranging the melodies--for string quartet (Kronos Quartet), brass ensemble (Empire Brass), solo voice and cello (Matt Haimovitz, Eileen Clark)--or even "reworking" them with added percussion, whistles, electronic sounds, and cellos (Richard Souther).
Some performers seek authenticity by employing only female voices, but there is good evidence that her music also would have been sung during her lifetime by men. So this program, its selections taken from Hildegard's collection of 77 "poetical-musical" works known as Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the harmony of celestial revelations) and presented in their original, unadulterated form (no whistles, cellos, or tubas!), takes a very sensible and listener-friendly route: the eight responsories and antiphons alternate between one group of four women and one of four men. The contrast of timbres from track to track is a nice effect, and thanks to some very well-matched and impressively well-practiced voices, the inflections, phrasing, and even the smallest nuances of textual emphasis achieve the desired uniformity while retaining the interesting tonal character of four combined voices. (We shouldn't be surprised at the high level of technical and musical accomplishment demonstrated here--a glance at the list of singers reveals several of Britain's finest, most experienced and versatile choral musicians.)
Oxford's Chapel of Hertford College proves to be an ideal venue for this pure, unadorned, unaccompanied vocal music, and Jeremy Summerly's short but informative notes provide just enough details to give listeners new to this music a start in understanding the mystique of this fascinating and uniquely gifted celebrity from the 12th-century--a true Renaissance woman long before the Renaissance was invented.
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
Seeing the title Seized by Sweet Desire and then putting on the disc and hearing Notre Dame organum is not the problem here. The boundary between secular and sacred in the Middle Ages was porous in the extreme, and the music to which the Notre Dame style gave birth sometimes even had a mixture of secular and sacred texts. Even the fairly raunchy female trouvère songs included here don't automatically place the music in a realm different from the religious pieces. Nor is it much of an issue that Denmark's all-female vocal group Musica Ficta, under male director Bo Holten, sings music from Notre Dame cathedral, where polyphony certainly would have been sung by males. Even if the soaring lines of Notre Dame organum are tied more than most music to a specific place, the music does, as Holten points out, make a refreshing impression with women's voices, and the music of medieval convents is still an unknown enough territory that it's hard to say whether nuns might have known about it or experimented with it. The sound of the album is consistent and fresh, living up to the claim that the group blands "the classical Oxbridge early music ideal with the warmth of the Scandinavian choral sound." Women's voices with a quick, strong vibrato resound in the spaces of St. Paul's Church in Copenhagen, and the sound of the album is consistent from start to finish. That's where the program hits a discordant note; the trouvère songs, delightful as they are, sound oddly anachronistic in a cappella versions, almost as if the music had been turned into Renaissance madrigals. The trouvères, male or female, were bards who sang with instrumental accompaniment. Sophisticated versions of the style with multiple voice parts existed, as presented here, but the music still feels strangely formal when sung this way. That said, this is an intriguing attempt to bring medieval music within the purview of mainstream vocal ensembles.
-- Allmusic Guide.com
"Here is a new recording of music by that astonishing, ever-popular twelfth-century abbess, Hildegard of Bingen. Some of the pieces will already be familiar to listeners who have heard "A Feather on the Breath of God" (Gothic Voices -Hyperion) and either of the two Deutsche Harmonia Mundi recordings by Sequentia, Ordo virtulum and, more recently - high in the charts - "Canticles of Ecstasy". Jeremy Summerly approaches Hildegard's outpourings in a thoughtful and mature manner. He seems to be more concerned with the actual sound of the music than with its female monastic setting and possible liturgical use. The high and low voices have separate items - don't be misled by an obvious printing error in the track analysis for No. 8 - well in character with male or female singers. Out of 11 pieces eight receive a strictly metrical interpretation (three beats in a bar) and this appears to work fairly well. There is no intrusive instrumental accompaniment, but some of the music sung by the high voices has an occasional discreet hint of a drone. It is all very restrained: there is a total absence of ostentation and indeed very little 'ecstasy', yet the whole peaceful recital is never dull or monotonous. This is an interesting and thought-provoking disc."
-- M.B., Gramophone [9/1995]
Catalog Number: 8503242
Composer: Anonymous, Hildegard of Bingen, Léonin, Pérotin
Conductor: Bo Holten, Jeremy Summerly
Orchestra/Ensemble: Oxford Camerata
Performer: Amy Vestbo, Ann-Christine Wesser Ingels, Malene Nordtorp, Susannah Carlsson