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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger


Sacred Music from Notre-Dame Cathedral
LÉONIN (c.1163-1190) Viderunt Omnes
PEROTIN (c. 1180-1225) Beata Viscera; Sederunt Omnes;
ANON: Plainchant: Viderunt Omnes; Motet on Dominus; Vetus abit littera
Joanna Forbes (soprano)
Rebecca Hickey (soprano)
Kathryn Oswald (contralto)
Alexander L'Estrange (counter-tenor)
Richard Eteson (tenor)
Alexander Hickey (tenor)
Timothy Watson (tenor)
Francis Brett (bass)
Tonus Peregrinus/Antony Pitts
rec. Chancelade Abbey, Dordogne, France, 5-9 Jan 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557340 [70.04]





This is the second disc recorded by the nine strong group Tonus Peregrinus. It follows their wonderful recording of the ‘Missa Tournai’ which came out last year. This disc has proved to be even better. In fact it is one of the most intriguing discs of 12th/13th music issued for some time and at Naxos’s price well worth it.

Most of these pieces have been chewed over by various performers in the past but Tonus Peregrinus have a new approach, in fact several new approaches. These throw new light on this repertoire and make for a fascinating and generous seventy minutes of listening. I will explain further.

Listening to Léonin is, if I may use architectural terminology, like viewing Romanesque architecture. Listening to Perotin is like seeing the new early Gothic style. And it is appropriate to see it this way as both worked at Notre-Dame in Paris and parts of it were, at the end of Leonin’s life, being turned into a new style Gothic building. Building work must have been going on as Perotin ‘improved’ upon his predecessor’s work. And although it’s tempting to see Léonin as rather primitive and Perotin’s flowering lines as more exciting, one must take Léonin for what he is, and in my view he ranks as high as his successor.

Perhaps you have recordings of Léonin by Red Byrd (RB) (Hyperion CDA66944) and by David Munrow with the Early Music Consort (EMC) on Archiv. If so you might be immediately surprised that Tonus Peregrinus (TP) take seventeen and a half minutes over the 'Viderunt Omnes' (a Christmas-time work) whereas RB takes just over eight and the EMC just over nine. Why is that? It is partly a question of interpreting the notation. Some sections of the music need a regular rhythmic approach we might say, which normally comes out in compound time; other sections are improvisatory over each of the plainchant notes held for an extraordinary long time. The speed at which these latter sections are taken is crucial. Are they just virtuosic roulades to be tossed off or is each note almost to be savoured or at least to be heard as part of an overall melodic shape? Oddly enough I wasn’t at all irritated by the extraordinary length of this interpretation. Helped by the superb acoustic of Chancelade Abbey the music sounds so inevitable and all-embracing.

In the performances of the Perotin pieces we have more competition. Let’s take the ‘Viderunt Omnes’ again. Here it lasts sixteen massive minutes, the compound time sections slowly echoing around the massive vaulting. Munrow, studio-bound of course in 1975, takes five minutes less, exactly the same as the yard-stick version, for me, that by the Hilliard Ensemble (ECM 1385). Another disc of this repertoire by the Orlando Consort (Archiv 453 487 -2) only has on it Perotin’s other great ‘Quadrupla’, the 'Sederunt Omnes'. Curiously they take three minutes longer than TP because of the laboured manner in which the plainsong interpolations are taken.

Whereas Léonin is constantly and extravagantly inventing new lines exploiting vocal brilliance and decoration (a product of all Romanesque Art), Perotin relies on repetition and exchange of parts. In addition Perotin preferred to limit himself to a handful of short phrases which he could work into a pattern at once ever-changing yet always the same; the first minimalist? In these slower performances this comes across very well aided as I say by an ideal acoustic with real atmosphere. It is also aided by superb singing which is not only powerful but also sensitive to dynamic variation and the use of effective crescendo.

I still can’t quite get over the thrill but in some ways the alarm of hearing Perotin’s ‘Sederunt’ sung by women with a gentle tenor part underneath sustaining the plainchant.

I shouldn’t really be surprised as ‘Anonymous 4’ were recording similar repertoire for about fifteen years. True there is a certain shrillness when the register is at its peak but the higher register allows for a greater clarity in the hearing of the polyphony and antiphony. There is also a terrific sense of accumulating architecture.

Another, perhaps unique feature of this disc is the singing of Psalm 115 ‘Non Nobis Domine’ from the ‘Scolica enchiriadis’. This is in a way a didactic exercise in the performance of Organum from the period approximately 900-1050. If not everyone in a choir can sing a certain melody at the same pitch, why not ask some to sing it a fourth lower or higher, a fifth lower or higher or an octave lower or higher. Dependent on how many singers you have available you might do many or indeed most of those things at the same time. That is what happens here. By dividing the psalm into twenty-six verses it proves possible to utilize different types of Organum between the men and women in a most colourful if, it must be admitted, inauthentic manner. The Gloria ends with a solo and then unison.

Incidentally whereas each of the other pieces has been multi-tracked, for example the Léonin allocated trs. 3-23 (!) these separate verses are not individually tracked. This is a pity. Perotin’s ‘Sederunt’ suffers the same fate. I wonder why this inconsistency?

The final track is devoted to another Christmas piece: often recorded four-voice conductus ‘Vetus abit littera’. This is a truly dancing performance when compared with Gothic Voices’ very likeable reading on ‘Music for the Lion-Hearted King’ (Hyperion CDA 66336) and brings the CD to a superb close.

In addition the disc offers a typical ‘ars antiqua’ motet and a simple and moving unaccompanied performance of Perotin’s ‘Beata Viscera’ by the perfect Rebecca Hickey, - an intriguing way of starting the disc.

The CD booklet is a model of its kind. All tracks are clearly explained. There is a superb introductory explanation by an expert - no less than Antony Pitts who has also edited the music. All texts are given and translated. Illustrations of two of the manuscripts are reproduced. There is a photo and biographies are given for each of the performers.

To sum up. A wonderful seventy minutes of the earliest polyphonic music known in Europe. Praise cannot be high enough for the entire project and team. One of my recordings of the year so far. You should go out and buy it instantly.

Gary Higginson



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