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Llibre Vermell - Pilgrim Songs and Dances from Fourteenth Century Montserrat
Morir, ffrares, nos conve (instrumental) [2.08] (Vocal version) [2.39]
O Virgo splendens hic in monte celso [6.59] ; Stella Splendens [9.36]
Laudeamus Virginem [2.10]; Los set gotxs recomptarem [8.06]; Stella ceptigera [2.24]; Polorum regina omnium nostra [8.00]; Cuncti simus concanentes; Ave Maria [6.15]; Mariam, Matrem Virginem attolite [6.27]; Imperayitz de la ciutat joyosa [6.54]
Ad mortem Festinamus [5.15]
Pilar Esteban (soprano); Lambert Climent (tenor)
Capella de Ministres
Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana/Carlos Magraner
rec. 17-18 November 2001
LICAMUS CDM 0201 [66:55]

 


The 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 lips. 

The 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.

Over 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. 

Philip 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. 

The 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. 

Jordi 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. 

We 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. 

 This 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? 

Each 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. 

A 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..

All 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 more sparingly. 

The 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. 

The 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. 

I 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. 

Gary Higginson 

 


 


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