Llibre Vermell was compiled in the last decade of the
fourteenth century. It consists of ten pilgrim songs in different
forms in the Catalan language. They were written for those arriving
in the great monastery church of Montserrat in the mountains
about 30km from Barcelona. The pilgrim’s aim was to touch the
orb of the Black Madonna or even the statue itself which sits
high up above the altar. Each day the pilgrims file up a passage
and stairway, as I did this Easter Day (April 2007). As they
took their final steps they sang, as they had done on their
many miles to the shrine; these were probably the songs on their
manuscript, which almost fell victim to Napoleon’s ransacking
of the monastery in 1811, was, at some point, embalmed in a
red case, hence ‘The Red Book’. Today, if you are looking for
evidence of the Middle Ages when you visit Montserrat, then
you will be hard put to find any. The beautiful rebuilding of
the Abbey was very thorough so that very little that is medieval
now remains. Given the thriving hub of the grounds around the
Abbey and its thronged cafés and bookstalls you are best advised
to walk to the little church of the Madonna in the mountains
or into the unchanged mountains themselves if you are to capture
any sense of the pilgrim atmosphere. I even thought, naively,
that the book itself might reside in the excellent museum next
door to the Abbey but I was wrong.
the years there have been several recordings of these songs.
Thomas Binkley and the ‘Studio de Fruhen Musik’, with some boy
trebles, tackled them in 1966 (Das Alte Werk 3984 21709-2) getting
through all ten in just over 12 minutes. I first heard the songs
on an Erato LP in a series of much interest ‘La Musica de Catalunya’
(1968-9). Here the choir of the cathedral, boys and men, took
almost twenty minutes over them. The unique timbre of the boys
under Ireneu Segarra is nowhere more evident. Instruments were
used as apparently happened in the Middle Ages when dancing
in the nave was acceptable. I was surprised to discover that
the boys’ voices no longer have such a distinctive quality.
Especially with the number of CDs now available in the thriving
’boutique’ by the Abbey, their sound has become more European.
Pickett with Catherine Bott recorded the songs on a L’Oiseau
Lyre double album (nla) which I have not heard complete. I have
also enjoyed ‘Alla Francesca’ with Emmanuel Bonnardot on Opus
111 (OPS 30-131) where again very continental-sounding boys
are sometimes deployed alongside a more sparing use of instruments.
They take about forty minutes over the songs. They have added
to the disc some much earlier Cantigas.
Ensemble Unicorn recorded some of this music, and most beautifully,
with Belinda Sykes for Naxos on a disc called ‘The Black Madonna’
(8.554256). They also include earlier and contemporary pieces
not part of the Llibre Vermell. They take a particularly
unusual approach which sounds deliberately ethnic.
Savall's disc with Hesperion XX on Virgin Veritas is entitled
‘A Fourteenth Century Pilgrimage’. It is very evocative and
like the Ensemble Unicorn is a little more Moorish in flavour.
It is also notable for its freedom of rhythm in the Antiphons
‘O Virgo splendens’ and ‘Laudeamus’ and its various bell sounds.
They also take an hour over the songs.
drove and partially walked up the mountain early on a brilliant
Easter morning. As we did we listened to this new recording,
singing along - the tunes are easy to remember - as we went
- ‘Imperayitz’ (O great empress of the joyful city), ‘Los sut
gotxs’ (The Seven Joys of Mary) and so on.
disc consists of twelve tracks. Two contrafacta are added to
the last song. The extraordinary dance of death ‘Ad mortem festinamus’
is now called ‘Morir, ffras nos conve’ and is played once instrumentally
at the start of the disc and once with a text which comes from
a manuscript from the hillside monastery city of Morella. Even
so ‘Capella de Ministres’, like Jordi Savall, take over an hour
for the entire sequence of songs; How do they do it?
piece begins with improvisations as if, in Christopher Page’s
words (‘Music and Instruments in the Middle Ages’ Dean, London
1986) “the musicians were discovering the tune, as it gradually
emerges”. Secondly they sing all of the verses, but these are
never done in a dull way. There is a constant change of texture
from solo voices to the use of the remaining six male voices.
Variety is also secured through interspersing instrumental interludes
which sometimes play the refrains alone. The instruments themselves
are colourful and played with passion and virtuosity.
good example of their approach is the way they perform ‘O Virgo
splendens’. It looks simple in the manuscript and on the written
page; just a single line amounting to only 26 modern bars. Whereas
Savall repeats the canon on instruments alone, the new recording
begins with the men in unison and in strict time above a drone
played on a ‘Ud, trompa marina’ sounding like a didgeridoo.
Then, like a flow of spring water, we hear the two soloists
Esteban and Climent sing it as intended, in canon over the drone.
The male voices return and now perform the canon 3:1. In some
recordings even more parts are introduced. Over the top a distant
sanctuary bell sounds as you approach the Virgin..
of the singing is authoritative and has exactly the right quality.
I especially like Pilar Esteban. She is not unlike Montserrat
Figueras. Lambert Climent in fact has often sung with Jordi
Savall’s group Hesperion XX. There is a similarity of timbre
between the two groups. Alla Francesca is equally convincing
but less exciting; more restrained and using instruments a little
highlights would be the ‘Stella splendens’, a fine tune fascinatingly
performed, and the incredibly inspired song ‘Mariam, Martrem
Virginem’. It never fails to bring a tear to my ear. It will
do so again and again especially as I recall listening as the
last view of Montserrat faded across the flat plain with its
incredibly serrated volcanic rocks.
final track is the rather joyous but somewhat bizarre dance
of death ‘Ad mortem festinamus’ which, as in Pickett’s recording,
ends the disc with a riotous orgy of excitement.
like this new disc very much. I also like the other more recent
versions I have mentioned even if I have not heard all of them
in full. Carlos Magraner finds energy and spectacle in this
music and one feels that at the recording sessions there must
have been considerable adrenalin pumping. This all adds up to
a terrific hour of outstanding Spanish early music.