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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger


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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]


The role played by Léonin in the development of the earliest polyphony is generally acknowledged as being profound, and yet it is not really known what, if anything, Léonin actually did, or even who he was. He is credited with the creation of the Magnus liber organi, the 'great book of organum' which was designed for liturgical use in the cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris. If Léonin was actually the creator of the Magnus liber, then his work does indeed represent perhaps the most profoundly influential achievement in the development of early polyphony.

Unfortunately, for historians and musician alike, it is impossible to know how much, if any, of this assertion is true, as the only source of this information is the testimony of an unknown Englishman who visited Paris in the latter half of the thirteenth century, the posthumously-named Anonymous IV. According to Anonymous IV, Léonin wrote two-part organum settings of graduals, alleluias and responsories for principal feasts throughout the ecclesiastical year; whether he composed them, though, or merely wrote them down, is far from certain.

Also according to Anonymous IV, Léonin was the best composer, or perhaps singer, of two-part organum, and the younger Pérotin was the best creator of quadrupla, the earliest surviving examples of four-part polyphony. Pérotin is known to have modified and shortened the Magnus liber, but unfortunately the original book no longer exists. Its contents survive in three substantially reworked versions from the 13th and early 14th centuries, but the original cannot be reconstructed, and its precise contents are uncertain. No works ascribed to Léonin survive in musical sources, so it is impossible to know what role he really played.

Pérotin's history is only slightly less caliginous than that of Léonin, as his identity is unknown and his achievements are described by just two contemporary theorists: Anonymous IV and Johannes de Garlandia. Again, none of his works is ascribed to him in musical sources; however, several can be attributed to him with reasonable certainty, and he was the most important of the musicians involved in the revision of the Magnus liber. As noted above, Anonymous IV credited Pérotin as being the best creator of quadrupla, and as the creation of three- and four-part organum at around the turn of the 13th century is one of the most important developments in polyphony, he clearly played an important part in the development of the earliest polyphony. The first examples of triple organum were written as two separate duets with the tenor line, the two upper voices having little mutual regard and featuring many discordant clashes. Pérotin, however, exhibited a notable awareness of texture in his music, creating much more harmonious agreement between the upper voice parts and using imitative voice-exchange between them.

Tonus Peregrinus's new Naxos CD provides a representative sample of the developing world of polyphony from the Magnus liber. The disc begins with a simple solo conductus, sung with beauty and purity by Rebecca Hickey, progresses through a range of two-part organum in different styles, attributed to Léonin, and culminates in various four-part organum settings by Pérotin and an anonymous four-part conductus. There are no three-part settings on this recording.

The CD takes the interesting approach of including a range of different versions of Viderunt omnes organum with different voicings and interpretations. As is made clear by the booklet notes, the rules of thirteenth-century musical notation are reasonably unambiguous for discantus-style organum, in which the plainchant and second voice use the same rhythmic modes, but the rules are open to far more interpretation when it comes to organum purum, in which a greatly slowed-down plainchant is accompanied by a highly elaborate solo line. There are therefore two separate performances of Viderunt omnes that share some identical plainchant sections, though in different voicings (upper and lower choirs), in which the organum settings explore different approaches to performance. The CD also presents a series of settings of the word Dominus, which were written either as alternative clausulae or perhaps free-standing pieces. The performances then go on to explore four-part polyphony by Pérotin and others.

The group's approach to the recording is explained in some relatively brief, but lucid and informative, booklet notes by Antony Pitts, director of Tonus Peregrinus and a composer in his own right. His notes draw an interesting, if somewhat tenuous, parallel between the growth of polyphony and the construction of the cathedral of Notre-Dame, which was underway at the same time as the music here recorded was written. He writes: "it may be hoped that we shall have conveyed something of the staggering cumulative effect of a Gothic cathedral in-progress."

The Magnus liber was, of course, created for use at Notre-Dame, and both Léonin and Pérotin are supposed to have worked there. The CD is subtitled Sacred Music from Notre-Dame and makes clear that the music presented on it was written for performance in that building; there's even an attractive photograph of the south transept rose window on the front cover. Given all those facts, therefore, it does seem a little odd that the performance on the CD was not actually recorded in Notre-Dame! Perhaps appropriate permission could not be obtained, but it does seem curious and a little regrettable. Luckily, the abbey in which the recording took place had suitable acoustics and the effect is very good.

The performances, which have clearly been backed by appropriate scholarly research, are generally very good, and sound 'authentic', by which I mean that the acoustics and ethereal sound transport the listener across both time and space into what feels to be a genuine, live performance of this music. With very early music such as this, it is easy to end up with a performance that sounds too studied and careful. Tonus Peregrinus succeeds in presenting a performance of music with feeling, rather than music as an academic exercise.

Another recording of the Pérotin Viderunt omnes, by the Hilliard Ensemble on a 1988 ECM New Series CD (ECM 1385, 837 751-2), is arguably 'better' in that the voices exhibit almost super-human control: every last note is perfectly audible and the vocal sound is flawless. I like that Hilliard recording very much, in fact; it's extremely difficult to fault, technically, but it does lack a certain human immediacy and spontaneity which is present in abundance in this new Naxos CD.

On the other hand, Tonus Peregrinus, whilst excellent overall, does not exhibit the same kind of technical perfection as the Hilliard Ensemble. Whilst their ensemble is perfect, there are occasionally imperfections in articulation and blend which are not apparent in the Hilliard recording, and the acoustics of the building do rather mask the antiphonal elements within the music, unfortunately; these are better delineated in the Hilliard performance.

So, the Tonus Peregrinus performance is not peerless; the solo tenor in the first Viderunt, in particular, I found to be a little edgy in tone and approximate in articulation at times, and there are occasional bulges and notable changes in timbre as vowels change. A direct comparison with a group such as the Hilliard Ensemble reveals imperfections which might be less apparent otherwise. Nevertheless, the performance is nothing short of excellent, and has the great advantage of making the music sound, as it should, as though it's part of a living tradition rather than being the exclusive province of musicologists. Appropriate research unquestionably forms the background to this recording, but the performance itself has great spontaneous conviction, and this elevates the whole disc to something more than an academic exercise.

Clearly this is not music that the majority of listeners would put on their CD players purely for aural pleasure (except perhaps those who are thoroughly steeped in early church music). But for anyone who has an interest in the birth of polyphony, or who wants to hear some of the roots from which Western music developed, this interesting, high quality, well performed and inexpensive new Naxos CD will be well worth investigating. It's an excellent addition to the early music catalogue.

Richard Hallas

see also review by Gary Higginson

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