I’m surprised to discover how many recordings of Christmas plainchant there are in the catalogue. Of these, two old favourites of mine, both on DG Archiv, cover similar ground to the present CD in that they are performed by monks who actually sing the plainchant offices regularly and all three present a liturgical sequence.
Actually, the DG recordings cover more ground than the Saydisc, in that one contains all twelve Matins responsories and the propers of the First (midnight), Second (dawn) and Third Masses of Christmas Day, sung by the monks of Montserrat and of the Benedictine Abbey of Münsterschwarzach, the latter directed by Father Godehard Joppich (2 lower-mid-price CDs, 459 4212). The Matins repsonsories and the Midnight Mass alone from this set are available separately on 477 8021. The other mid-price recording contains two of the Christmas Day Masses on a single CD (445 0462, Monks of the Benedictine Abbey, Beuron, directed by Father Marus Pfaff).
The Saydisc recording, on the other hand, offers excerpts from Matins and two of the three Christmas Masses, plus the Gradual of the Epiphany Mass and some short hymns and chants.
The Saydisc recording, therefore, is less consistent than the DG - the intrusion of the Gradual Omnes de Saba
from the completely different feast of Epiphany (January 6th
) breaks the Christmas sequence - but many who balk at the idea of two whole CDs of chant will prefer the mix-and-match-approach.
Some of the recordings of the Montserrat choir which I have heard have sounded less than secure, but such is not the case here; their version of the responsory Verbum caro factum est
sounds slightly more robust than that on the Saydisc CD and their pace is a little faster than their English brethren, whose tone is lightened by the presence of the nuns’ choir; there isn’t a great deal in it, but I slightly prefer the livelier Spanish performance.
In the Introit from the Midnight Mass, Dominus Dixit
, the Münsterschwarzach Monks, like those of Montserrat in the Mattins responsories, take the chant at a slightly faster pace than the Prinknash and Stanbrook singers - again, I think, marginally preferably for the average listener. Otherwise, in the items in common between the two recordings, honours are about even. If you want the complete Midnight and Dawn Masses, plus the third Mass, from which no items are included on Saydisc, you will have to go for the 2-CD DGG recording, especially as the Saydisc offers somewhat truncated versions of the Offertory Lætentur
and the Communion In splendoribus
(just 49 seconds of the latter).
The third version of the Midnight Mass, under Marius Pfaff’s direction, in an earlier incarnation, comes out for an annual airing every Christmas in our household. If I prefer it to both its rivals, that may be due to familiarity as much as anything: I’ve just expressed a marginal preference for the slightly faster pace of the Münsterschwarzach recording, so it seems illogical for me to prefer Pfaff’s slightly slower pace in the Introit: 3:20 against the Prinknash 3:02 and the Münsterschwarzach 2:45. The Beuron chant is at least as secure as that on the other two discs.
The Münsterschwarzach and Prinknash recordings both employ the Missa IV
chant for the Kyrie
and the other parts of the common of the Mass; the Beuron recording uses Missa IX
. The Beuron recording also includes the Oratio
or collect, Epistle and Gospel of the Mass. Be warned that the epistle tone in particular may not lend itself happily to 21st
-century ears, which are likely to be used to more variety. On the other hand, if the appeal of plainchant for you lies in the very fact that it is not
exciting, but peaceful and soothing, any one of these three recordings could be just right, but the Beuron recording could be the most right - 74 minutes of sheer tranquillity.
The reading from Isaiah on Saydisc employs a more varied form of chant, using a tone from the Worcester Antiphoner, a composite manuscript of liturgical books from the Benedictine Cathedral Priory of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Worcester, probably compiled in its present form in the fourteenth/fifteenth century, but with items much older than that.
The unique appeal of the Saydisc recording lies in the short hymns and antiphons which round off the programme. A single nun sings Angelus ad virginem
, with short interjections from the nuns’ choir. The soloist’s voice is attractive and tonally secure, but this is a very different experience from hearing the piece sung, for example, by The Tallis Scholars on their 2-CD Christmas with the Tallis Scholars
which I reviewed last year (CDGIM202 - see review
). Which, of course, is not to say that one is better than the other; the Gimell is a more ‘finished’ product, part of a splendid collection whereas the Saydisc performance appeals through its simplicity - and it may well be closer to the sound that Chaucer imagined Nicholas the clerk making when he tells us in the Miller’s Tale
that he sang it of an evening. (No accompaniment here, though; Nicholas accompanied himself on the psaltery.)
The Saydisc presentation is attractive and the notes are generally thorough and informative, though the apparent implication that the text of Psalm 94 (AV Psalm 95) is unique in being taken not from St Jerome’s Vulgate but from the earlier Old Latin translation is misleading: all the psalms in the Roman Breviary, not just this, come from Jerome’s earlier, very conservative recension of the Old Latin, translated not from the Hebrew but from the Greek Septuagint version, just as the Book of Common Prayer retained Coverdale’s version from Henry VIII’s Great Bible, even when the other texts were changed to follow the 1611 King James version. Most listeners will not immediately be able to identify the Worcester Antiphoner, stated in the notes as the source of the lesson tone for the reading from Isaiah, without further information. (See above.) Complete texts and good translations are included.
My own preference would be for a recording which alternates plainsong with monophonic or polyphonic music, as on the new Hyperion CD From the Vaults of Westminster Cathedral
(CDA67707 - see my October, 2009, Download Roundup
). I have to say that I find 63 minutes of chant a little wearing. If, however, you are looking for something fresh this Christmas, something untouched by any hint of professionalism or commercialism, soothing music, authentically performed and well recorded, this CD joins several other recommendable seasonal recordings from Saydisc and its sister label Amon Ra. The success of EMI’s Canto Gregoriano
some years ago (still available on two lower-mid-price CDs, 5652172) suggests that that’s exactly what many listeners are attracted to. If you want more of the same, go for one or both of the DG recordings - perhaps even in addition to this Saydisc recording.