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Flame of Ireland - Medieval Irish Plainchant for the Office of St. Brigit
Hymn ‘Aest dies leticie’ (from first vespers) [3.05]
Matins for the Feast of St. Brigit [67.01]
Antiphona ‘Deo Carnis edidit’ (from First vespers) [1.04]
Antiphona ‘Verna pollens’ (from lauds) [0.57]
Antiphona ‘Lux Brigida’ (from Second Vespers) [1.17]
Hymn ‘Christo canamus gloriam’ (from Lauds) [3.04]
Canty (Libby Crabtree; Ruth Dean; Anne Lewis; Rebecca Tavener)
William Taylor (wire-stringed clarsach harp)
rec. St. Mary’s Church, Haddington, East Lothian, October 2002, January 2004

ASV has been recording plainchant from various parts of the British Isles for some time now. In this enterprise they have worked with Capella Nova under Alan Tavener. This is a relatively undiscovered area and much of the music is unknown. Apparently all except one track on this new CD is newly recorded. The other earlier discs have been realized for mixed voices. This new one uses the four women’s voices of ‘Canty’ which, since the days of the American group ‘Anonymous 4’, has proven to be an effective and successful format.

On this disc, what is especially attractive is the occasional appearance of the very Celtic clarsach harp, an instrument increasing in its popularity. William Taylor improvises in the appropriate mode, something which he has been studying for some time. Stories of all sorts were often chanted, as here, on just three or four notes. The effect is like the chanting of an epistle or gospel, or a declamation to the accompaniment of the clarsach in a hall or meeting room. The instrument makes its first entry with the story about King Dubthach and his affair with his servant girl, Brocsech, with whom he has a famed daughter, St. Briget herself. The story of the saint is told throughout the disc with, in between, nine nicely chosen responsorial plainchants and Antiphons (short prayers) suitable for Matins on her Feast day. These fit aptly with the reading or I should say the Lectio. The clarsach also plays for most of the Antiphons, which are in a different mode from the Lectios. In this way what we might call ‘key fatigue’ is avoided and contrast offered.

Brigit’s feast day, being incidentally on 1 February, was marked in pre-Christian times as the day of putting out the old fires and building new ones. St. Brigit became the patron saint of metalworkers and blacksmiths as a consequence, hence the title of the disc ‘The Flame of Ireland’. Fire features in two of the legends recited here.

The disc has been ‘hung’ around the Feast of St. Brigit. ‘Who she?, you might ask. Well, the excellent booklet essay tells us. She was born in or around 453 and died in about 524. She founded an oratory in Kildare at Cill-Dara (translated as ‘Church by the Oak’), now a fine city with a wonderful Cathedral (good Norman work) and spiritual centre. She is the most important female saint of Ireland. Even in England churches and villages have been dedicated in her honour.

The chants selected come from two manuscripts in Trinity College Dublin, prosaically called MS78 and TCD 88, which have collated to recreate a shortened version of Matins. In addition Canty have recorded some other suitable Antiphons as listed above for Vespers and Lauds used also on the saint’s Feast Day. It is good to be told in the notes that Dr. Ann Buckley has edited and transcribed the plainchant; something I am often asking record companies to do.

These plainchants are divided nicely between solo lines and tutti voices with the wire-stringed clarsach weaving delightfully in and out of the texture. Each singer is superb. The tuning is immaculate - as one has come to expect in early music. The text is delivered in the Lectios in a dramatic manner where necessary and with beautifully clear diction. It is a good idea to follow the texts and their excellent translations by James Reid-Baxter - some of it in quite obscure Latin - as one can more appreciate what William Taylor is attempting on the harp by way of descriptive word-painting. For example when Brigit as an infant is left in a house which suddenly catches fire, the harp likewise seems to catch a flame or two from the blaze.

The beautifully presented booklet is adorned with the well known image of the Virgin and Child from the Book of Kells - also to be seen at Trinity College, Dublin. The texts are given but sometimes not quite complete. Some Gloria Patris are missing and you should listen out for some textual repetition in the Antiphons. Also the texts for tracks 7 and 9 have been printed in the wrong order. Photographs and biographies of the performers are also given, as usual.

I recently visited Haddington Church which is the biggest parish church in Scotland. It’s not far from Edinburgh and with its super acoustic is an excellent choice. The effect is of space around the voices, as if in a vast uncluttered medieval abbey. Even so the sound remains clear and intimate.

Listening to this disc has been a beautiful, relaxing and spiritual experience. The music is most sensitively performed, unique in its sound-world. It is a disc I will play regularly.

Gary Higginson



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