This is something
special and should be snapped up by all lovers of ancient music
and literature. The ‘Liber Evangeliorum’ was written around
870 CE. It’s considered one of the greatest works of the Carolingian
‘renaissance’ - that ninth century revival in cultural and intellectual
activity in the Europe of Charlemagne. The work of Otfrid, a
monk at Weißenburg Abbey in Alsace, it contains more than 7,000
verses ‘translating’ the gospel into the Old High German Franconian
dialect. That it survives at all is highly unusual: vernacular
text was rarely recorded.
The extant Heidelberg
manuscript copy - which may be an original from St Gallen -
from which this edition was prepared is in neumes: notation
inflexions indicating musical forms in use before the five-line
stave. This strongly suggests or indeed proves outright that
these texts were sung, chanted and were likely to have been
used in the liturgy. Clearly the actual performing practices
- though ‘performance’ in the sense we understand it is hardly
the right word here - and the mechanics of the reconstruction
are speculative; neumes didn’t necessarily indicate note values
or rhythms. Yet what we hear on this CD has a wholeness to it
and works extremely well as a committed amalgam of liturgy in
context, and simply splendid music.
Ensemble Officium’s director, has attempted a reconstruction
of those passages in the ‘Liber Evangeliorum’ for Advent and
Christmas. They bring us nearly two dozen spell-binding and
utterly wonderful items: spoken readings placed in the liturgical
context of nocturnes or night prayers in the Abbey followed
by contemporary responsaries (Gregorian chant) taken from the
St Gallen manuscript. The Abbey had strong intellectual and
clerical connections with Weißenburg, or Wissembourg in French.
This is beautiful
music, beautifully and sensitively sung. Ethereal and remote
yet without gloss, artifice or self-reverence. It’s highly sanctified,
lucid and about as far from the percussive syncopation of modern
living as you can get. Ensemble Officium was founded in 1999
- a dozen or so reciters, instrumentalists and vocal soloists
– already with some significant prizes to their credit. They
have captured the atmosphere in which the work originated. Unhurried,
thoughtful and transparent articulation pay off throughout.
To them the music has nothing to ‘prove’. It just is and
their job in the present century is to reveal it and expose
the dedication and sonorous beauty which went into its composition
twelve hundred years ago.
The balance between
spoken recitation, solo chant, ensemble singing and instruments
– and sometimes a pleasant combination of these – works beautifully.
There is variety, stimulation, anticipation and ultimately immense
satisfaction. These forces have also managed to absorb – and
thence convey to the open-eared listener – the architecture
and form of the selection. There’s a certain inevitability to
the sound here that’s intentionally eschewed in, say, the chant
of the Notre-Dame school of 300 years later, music of the closest
in time familiar to many listeners.
and informative CD booklet gives ample background to the ‘Liber
Evangeliorum’. How the language in which Otfrid worked, for
example, made efforts to combine the alliterative metricality
of Old High German with Latin end rhyming. It contains all the
OHG and Latin texts - with modern German only translations;
twelve pages in total.
Rombach has used
three fidels - one of the earliest mediaeval bowed instruments;
violin family: hence ‘fiddle’ - to accompany some of the singing,
which includes women’s voices. If not Perotin and Leonin, the
closest in style for many new to this music might well be Hildegard,
recordings of whose bright and pure music sometimes accentuate
the ‘ecstatic’. The way the ‘Liber Evangeliorum’ is offered
to us in this recording is calmer and unself-conscious. It is
nonetheless entrancing thanks to careful adherence by Ensemble
Officium to the inner confidence of the Otfrid’s work.
So this is both
more austere music and at the same time every bit as profound
and affecting at a very deep emotional level as other chant
and song from the early mediaeval period. This recreation will
not be ‘definitive’. How could it be? But it works. It conveys
the power of the music and stands in its own right as a lovely
creation to return to time and again.
“Strive with the utmost zeal … to make it sound beautiful” -
in fact he was referring to the Franconian language whose cause
the ‘Liber Evangeliorum’ was also written to advance - has been
heeded. Don’t hesitate to buy this landmark CD.