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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


HOFFNUNG for CHRISTMAS? an ideal Christmas present for yourself or your friends.
Books posted the day the order is received


Léonin (fl.c.1160-1190)
Sacred Music from 12th Century Paris 2
For Christmas. Judea et Jherusalem; Descendit de celis; For Easter. Et valde mane; Christus resurgens; Sedit angelus; For Pentecost. Dum complerentur; Advenit ignis; Repleti sunt omnes; Benedicamus Domino
Red Byrd – John Potter and Richard Wistreich with Yorvox
Recorded at St. Alban’s Church Holborn London April 2001
HYPERION CDA67289[74.33]


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There arose during the middle of the 12th Century a school of polyphonic composition centred on the new cathedral of Notre Dame at Paris. The achievements of the Parisian school led by Léonin were remarkable. He composed polyphonic settings of the solo portions of Responsaries, Graduals, Alleluias etc., writing melismata of great length over the sustained notes of the plainsong - the vox principalis, or as it was known, the tenor, for it hung on to each pitch, whilst the newly composed part was known as the vox originalis or the duplum.

So, who was Léonin, or (as he should be known by his official Latinised title) Magister Léoninus? Well we don’t really know. It is only through a document known as ‘anonymous IV’ c.1280 written by a monk at the lively and intellectual monastery, [possibly one Coussemaker] in Bury St. Edmunds that we learn of his existence. "Magister Léoninus was the best composer of organum who composed …. to increase the divine service." We are told that he wrote a cycle of "two-part settings of the most important chants in the liturgical year – Christmas, Easter, Assumption and others; this cycle was called the Magnus liber organi, - The great book of organum" (booklet notes by Mark Everist). His work was built upon by the better-known Perotinus (c.1160-1220) whose music has been recorded more often including a superb disc by the Hilliard ensemble (ECM 1385). In the past Léonin had to share a record with Perotin, or with anon., but in recent years he has been allowed to speak for himself. I am thinking of the ground-breaking first Léonin disc by Red Byrd (CDA 66944) recorded in December 1996, and of a disc by Ensemble Organum recorded in 1984 (HMCD 1148), which to my mind is much less successful. David Munrow also tackled a handful of pieces in his ‘Music of the Gothic Era’ recorded in 1975.

At that time Munrow could confidently write "Léonin’s Magnus Liber consisted of thirty-four polyphonic pieces for the canonical hours and fifty nine for the Mass itself". Present scholarship is not so certain, and it may be best to think instead of a ‘school of Léonin’ rather as art scholars refer to the ‘school of Giotto’ or of ‘Simone Martini’.

What you hear in this music is an aural manifestation of the solid and ritually ornamented rhythms of the pillars and arcades of a 12th Century church be it in England or France. You should try to bear in mind not the St. Denis you now know in Paris but the earlier Romanesque building rebuilt at the end of Léonin’s life by Bishop Suger. We can only guess at its details but enter a Cathedral, say at Elne in Catalonia or Waltham Abbey in Essex then you have some idea of where this music was first heard.

If you want to hear some of the earliest attempts at two-part writing you should try ‘Anglo-Saxon Christmas’ with 10th Century mass music from the Winchester Troper. (On Herald HAVPCD 151 directed by Mary Berry).

Red Byrd’s first disc concentrated almost entirely on ‘Alleluya’ settings, which followed the Gradual at major feasts; now they concentrate on the ‘Respond’. This term means responsory or preferably the main section of a responsorial chant, as opposed to the verse. Thus, a responsory or a Gradual consists of Respond and verse.

What makes these performances so important is the not only the virtuosity of the two soloists but also their use of rhythm. The situation is set out clearly in the booklet notes, and I quote. Léonin’s duplum did two things. 1. "He laid out the lowest part in long notes and wrote highly elaborate, rhapsodic lines above it." And 2. " he took the long melismas of the chant and organized them into repeating rhythmic cells and wrote a correspondingly tight rhythmic duplum above it." This has until recently manifested itself in dancing compound time rhythms constantly being employed. This is the case with David Munrow’s performances (which are notated in 6/8 time) where the long notes in the tenor are also played by a set of hand bells. This rhythmic procedure is known as discantus. Mark Everist however adds, "Both types exist within the same composition". Thus is set out for us in the booklet how this works. Some sections are performed freely; there is no sense of regular pulse or of modern-day bar-lines. Others, often shorter, are given the regular compound time rhythms mentioned above. These are then balanced against chunks of plainchant, sung here by the excellent sextet of male voices Yorvox.

Ensemble Organum in their recording, which is not at present available, put Léonin’s organum in the context of a Mass for Christmas morning, meaning that there is yards of plainsong to negotiate. Also with Ensemble Organum the discantus sections do not grow so naturally out of the melismatic sections by comparison with Red Byrd.

These recordings by Red Byrd are the first to use all of these techniques within a piece and not to set them in a liturgical context. Not only do we have satisfactory contrasts but also the music moves in an architectural space, aided here by the wonderful acoustic. Volume 1 does not state its recording venue, it may well have not been at St. Andrew's Holborn as the Cappella Amsterdam, who sang the plainsong, appear to be microphoned rather too closely and have less air around them. Yorvox are miked more evocatively seemingly in the chancel whereas the soloists are in front of the nave screen. The text is always beautifully enunciated.

For me then this is an outstanding release where scholarship and superb vocal musicianship go hand in hand. I am left in admiration of the entire project. However, like Frankie Dettori, whose admiration was totally for his mount after winning the Derby, one should point the finger of praise at the score.


Gary Higginson



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