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Rose van Jherico: The Songbook of Anna von Köln (ca.1500)
Laist ons syngen ind vroelich syn [2:23]
Nu hoirt nu hoirt all wonder [3:02]
Te celi reginam [3:45]
Ich grois dich gerne [8:37]
Mit vrouden quam der engel [6:08]
Ich sachz eyn mols [2:34]
Puer natus in bethleem [3:08]
Jure plaudant omnia [1:02]
In dulci jubilo [3:30]
In Feuers Hitz [1:38]
Heir bouen in myns vaders rych [3:33]
Rose van Jherico [2:17]
O laist ons vroelich syngen [3:13]
Elend, du hast umfangen mich [3:32]
Audi tellus [3:47]
Stetit ihesus coram pylato [3:48]
Mater sancta, dulcis Anna [5:28]
Dulcissime ihesu [6:41]
Ave dei genitrix [2:44]
Wail up, ich moes van hynnen [6:47]
Ars Choralis Coeln Ensemble for Medieval Music/Maria Jones
rec. Kloster Walberberg, near Brühl, Germany, 11-14 September 2006. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English, French and German and texts in Early New High German and Latin, with Modern German translations and summaries in English and French.
RAUMKLANG RK2604 [77:39]

 


This is the kind of recording that Deutsche Harmonia Mundi used to do so well before it became swallowed up in multiple international take-overs: little-known music made attractive in stylish and enjoyable performances, well recorded in a co-production with West German Radio. Those of an adventurous musical disposition need read no further – go out and support Raumklang’s enterprise. 

When I offered to review this CD I had no idea who Anna von Köln was or what her songbook consisted of. Thanks to the booklet which comes with the CD I am now a little better informed but have still had to make some assumptions about matters which are not covered by the notes. The booklet is already thick enough to fit with difficulty in its pouch within the gatefold triptych – it would probably have been too thick to fit inside a conventional CD case – so it is mean of me to complain that there is more that I should have liked to have been told, but more information would have been very welcome, for example, about how much the music needed to be edited for these performances. 

Two related movements in late-medieval Christianity, the devotio moderna and the Common Life combined to produce the songbook. The best-known achievement of the devotio moderna movement was Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, a work which has been translated many times in many languages. The artist Brueghel appears to have been influenced by this movement, the aim of which was to make religion more accessible to ordinary people, hence the illustration of biblical or moral themes in Brueghel’s paintings. Alongside this movement and influenced by it was the so-called Brotherhood of the Common Life, a lay organisation with links to the Augustinian Canons. The Brotherhood embraced a kind of middle way between the secular and monastic states and its members were much involved in evangelisation and good works. It was through their good offices that Erasmus joined the Augustinian Canons and received the education which was to make him one of the leading lights in renaissance humanism. Both movements flourished in the lower Rhine area, the area with which Anna is associated, and both stressed the use of the vernacular as a teaching instrument, hence the predominance of texts in German here over those in Latin. Hence, too, the use of the familiar and everyday to express profound concepts: Laist ons syngen, track 1, depicts Jesus as an innkeeper, serving the wine of love to intoxicate his people. That the songbook is attributed to a woman reminds us of the place of women in the devotio movement. 

Though Erasmus was associated with these movements, it must not be supposed that they represented some kind of proto-protestant belief. (Indeed, Erasmus himself, who had criticised many of the faults of medieval Catholicism which led to Luther’s Theses, soon parted company with Luther over the issue of Free Will.) Though emphasising Christ-centred religion, especially concentrating on the nativity – the subject of several of these songs – at the same time the Brotherhood and the devotio moderna also stressed devotion and prayer to the Virgin Mary and her mother Saint Anne and these are prominent in the music on this CD. Most of the songs include praise of or intercession to the Virgin or, in the case of Mater sancta, to St Anne also. Luther himself had an abiding special regard for St Anne, whose intervention he regarded as having saved him from a serious illness, but after the break with Rome he came to regard prayer to the saints as futile.

The songs present a microcosm of late-medieval piety, with its special stress on the transitory nature of the world and all its deceits and the uncertainty of when death will strike. Audi tellus, track 15, presents the familiar medieval rhetorical question Ubi sunt? – where are those who once were great? Famous biblical and classical personalities are named together as having passed away “according to the law of mortals.” The theme may be morbid but the treatment is not: Nu hoirt, track 2, is a warning about death but the jaunty rhythm is perhaps meant to suggest the familiar late-medieval theme of the Dance of Death. Here, for once, the prominent rhythmic harp accompaniment is not inappropriate. Mention of the blind leading the blind in this rhythmic context reminds us of the Brueghel painting of the blind men reeling along the road and about to fall into the ditch together. 

A common feature of late medieval piety encouraged the believer to identify with the passion of Christ. The Mirror of the Life of Christ, a text mis-attributed to St Bonaventura, was especially influential in England in encouraging this practice, so taken to heart by the remarkable Margery Kemp that she was often rebuked for wailing in church as the priest consecrated the sacrament. Stetit ihesus, track 16, provides an example of such affective identification with the sufferings of Jesus. 

The title of the CD, Rose van Jherico, taken from track 12, emphasises the centrality of the Virgin in this music. During the middle ages more and more different types and titles came to be associated with Mary and Rose of Jericho (i.e. a rose without thorns) was one of these. Maris stella, star of the sea (track 17) was another. So too was the identification of Mary with the woman clothed in the sun and with the moon beneath her feet named in Revelation, another attribution of Mary referred to in track 12: 

Die myt der sonnen is gekleit

Tu es plena gratia

De mane onder de voesse spreit

Aue maria. 

(She is clothed with the sun, Thou art full of grace, The moon is pread beneath her feet, Hail Mary.) 

For a list of these attributions as used in medieval poetry, see R T Davies, Medieval English Lyrics (London: Faber, 1963), pp.371-8. 

Those fluent in modern German will have noted from this brief quotation that late-medieval/early-modern German is not exactly easy to follow. This is especially true for the lower Rhine area, where a number of dialects coalesce; even today, the dialect of Cologne, known as Kölsch, is very hard to follow. A generally reliable modern German translation is provided in the booklet but English and French readers have to be content with a summary of each song. The orthography of some of the Latin texts is also peculiar – yn for in, for example – though some of the peculiarities may be misprints in the booklet (facte for fac te, perhaps). 

What is surprising is that there is nothing here to suggest the kind of late-medieval music which was developed by Luther in the well-known form of the Lutheran unison chorale. Two of the pieces, Puer natus in bethleem (track 7) and In dulci jubilo (track 9) did attain rebirth at the hands of Lutheran composers, notably Praetorius, though in forms different from those heard here: even the macaronic (two-language) text of In dulci jubilo was changed somewhat and shorn of its Mariolatry in the following century. 

There is a great variety of music here. The dance-like Nu hoirt is followed by the plainsong-like music of Te celi reginam, an elaborate imitation of the Te Deum in honour of the Virgin Mary. Nearly all the music is of great beauty and it is beautifully performed, some of it in instrumental realisations, some sung solo, the rest performed by a small choir, sometimes in a simple form of antiphony. The vocal items are accompanied and this accompaniment sometimes is too obtrusive, with the vocalists set well back and the instruments seeming more forward. The instrumental playing is beautiful in itself – the purely instrumental tracks, 10, 14 and 19, very well performed – but Christ’s words of comfort in O laist ons (track 13) are almost drowned by the accompaniment of the harp and dulcimer. Elsewhere the bells are too prominent. The acoustic sounds suitably ecclesiastical: the recording was made at a monastery near Brühl, not far from the home of Anna herself and of the performers. 

Some of this music must have sounded old-fashioned by 1500; some of it, indeed, sounds like the music of Hildegard of Bingen centuries earlier. How much this is because of the manner of the performances I am not sure, but I note that this ensemble has performed with Sequentia on an earlier CD and it may be that they have absorbed some of the style with which Sequentia perform the music of Hildegard on a number of DHM CDs. The instrumentation employed here is very similar to that which Sequentia and other ensembles employ in interpreting medieval music – a very different philosophy from that of, for example, Gothic Voices, whose director Christopher Page mostly eschews instrumental accompaniment. The booklet, full though it is, makes no mention of the extent to which the raw notes on the page have been edited and interpreted to produce the sound which we hear. Are the antiphonal effects which we hear, for example, in Audi tellus, track 15, original or editorial? Or, again, how original is the other-worldly accompaniment to Mit vrouden quam der engel? Or the bells in Puer natus and Jure plaudant? 

The final song, Wail up ich moes van hinnen, track 20, rounds off the disc effectively with a farewell to the world, a theme familiar from St Augustine’s reminder that the earthly city is not our true abode. The music is beautiful, as befits a song which evokes der suesser engelen sanck, the song of sweet angels, but the notes in the booklet admit to some doubt as to the origin of this setting: it may just have been composed by the late eminent musicologist Barbara Thornton. Whatever its provenance – for what it’s worth, it sounds to me like a distant relative of a well-known farewell song, Innsbruck ich muss dich lassen – it is beautifully sung, with a smaller group singing the stanzas and the larger group the refrain. 

Minor criticisms apart, this is a delightful recording. Much of the music is little short of ethereal and the performances, from the soloists, ensemble and instrumentalists, and the recording are very satisfying. 

Brian Wilson

 

 


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