Hildegard: Celestial Harmonies / Summerly
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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
Catalog Number: 8557983
Composer: Hildegard of Bingen
Conductor: Jeremy Summerly
Orchestra/Ensemble: Oxford Camerata