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Hildegard of BINGEN (1098-1179)
Sapphire Night: O Frondens Virga; Karitas Habundat; O Euchari, Columba; In Matutinis Laudibus; Columba Aspexit. Anonymous 'O Gloriosa'
Patricia VAN NESS (b.1951) ‘The Nine orders of the Angels'
Tapestry/Laurie Monahan (soprano and harp)
Carolann Buff, (mezzo-soprano)
Recorded at Mandelslah, May 2003. DDD

At first glance it might seem a somewhat curious coupling if not bizarre; to put together music by Hildegard and a large-scale forty minute work by the contemporary American composer Patricia Van Ness, yet this is far from the case. I found myself thinking, that Van Ness's 'The Nine orders of the Angels' is what Hildegard might have written had she have been alive today. But there is no pastiche involved here. Hildegard's music acts as a frame for 'The Nine orders of angels' and then the whole is climaxed by 'O Gloriosa' a 13th Century motet from the Las Huelgas mansuscript.

I feel also that to fully understand Van Ness's work you should also grasp something of the way in which Hildegard's music itself is often performed.

To see the score of say 'Columba aspexit' (as published by ArsAntico) is to see an unadorned melodic line, with no rhythmic indications as is common in music of the period. No harmony of course, no instruments obviously. Performances on disc of purely unaccompanied Hildegard do exist, for example the one by the Sisters of the Benedictine Abbey at Eibingen, Hildegard's home. Their fascinating recording has Hildegard's music growing out of the Gregorian psalm chants or acting as a responsorial before and after the psalm (on Ars Musici 1203-2). Most early music groups feel that something should be added to the music and in all probability this also happened in Hildegard's day.

The sound-world created by Gothic Voices on Hyperion or Sequencia on a Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, discs recorded almost twenty years ago has seeped into the psyche of many of us and the Van Ness work is no exception. Let me give examples.

A typical Hildegard vocal line may begin with an arresting rising phrase almost immediately covering the interval and giving an ecstatic effect. Van Ness begins the movement (IV) 'Angeli Potestastis' with a glorious ‘riser’ given to each of the soprano voices canonically. Hildegard's music is modal, Van Ness's lines are also modal. Sometimes when she breaks away from that modality as in an impassioned and dissonant passage in movement IV at the words 'You can become angels of death/ Like great cats with bloody fangs' it is to make a real point which has emerged from the text. This image-laden text is by the composer herself.

Drones are often added to the chants. Page adds the 'symphony' or reed drones to 'Columba aspexit'. Sequentia add a vocal drone in 'O Virga ac diadema' (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi CDC 7 49251-2). Patricia Van Ness writes Hildegard-like lines and will pick out a note at the end of a phrase and have it held whilst the phrase is repeated by another voice or whilst it develops further. Listen to their 'Angeli Potestastis'. It is a fingerprint of the entire work and the effect is ecstatic.

In Hildegard's Hymns there are many verses. 'Columba aspexit' has four divided as 1a, 1b, 2a 2b etc ending with a 5a. Tapestry takes the line that the 'a' section can be soloist and the ‘b’, a response, can be all voices. This contrast of single voice against the tutti is a characteristic of Van Ness's approach, as in Movement 5 'Raphael sum Virtutem'; a solo voice, monody, against a unison response ending with harmony.

And talking about Harmony ... the bare 5th is common in Van Ness as it is in performances of medieval improvised harmony and drones. The tear-jerking last movement 'Michael sum Seraphim' begins and ends with one and is, like other movements, generally based around it.

Track 2 is Hildegard's 'Karitas Habundant'. Track 3 is the first movement of Van Ness's work yet stylistically it is almost impossible to tell them apart at first. The latter begins with a simple, repeated monody. When it does blossom, it turns into three part 14th Century style polyphony.

The booklet notes by Cristi Catt, one of the sopranos, discuss the spiritual link between the composers. "All of the songs" she writes "were designed to inspire and stretch the singer and in an active yet contemplative way". I should say that this is a very spiritual CD, in the best possible way, and I have found it a most uplifting experience to listen to it.

Patricia Van Ness's short essay tells us a little more about the process of realization, but she likewise adds that composing the work gave her the opportunity to "continue my ongoing exploration into the nature of God". She also says that her sole object is to "seek and find out beauty" which she says is "the strongest motivation force in my life". She explains that she was in almost daily contact with the singers who, as the work grew, tried portions out so that the composer could adjust and alter.

Not surprisingly therefore Tapestry are utterly on top of every single demand imposed by the composer and by Hildegard. A stunning performance has resulted. The notes tell us that Tapestry "were born out of our common love for Hildegard's music" and Van Ness's work is a continuum of that language.

I wish that more than two sections from the sequence 'In Mutatanis Laudibus' had utilized the harp. After an hour of unaccompanied voices the effect is of finding cooling water on a scorching hot day - absolutely delicious.

This is, for me, already my record of the year and I can only urge readers for whom this repertoire is little known or for those of you who are already engaged with it in some way to search this disc out. I would be amazed if you did not become as besotted with this disc as I am.

Gary Higginson

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