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Angeli: Music of Angels, Chant and Polyphony for the Nine Orders of Angels and the Queen of the Angels
ANON Salve virgo virginum [2:29] (Latin motet, Worcester Manuscript)
Patricia van Ness (b. 1951) Arcanae
I Seraphim [4:48]; II Michael [3:30]; III Lucis angeli [2:43]
ANON O lilium convallium [3:17] (conductus, Notre Dome repertory)
Crawford Young (b. 1952) Custos desertorum [3:08]
Patricia van Ness Ego sum Custos Angela [2:59]
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) O vos Angeli (responsory) [10:52]
Shira Kammen (b. 1961) Au renouvel [4:44]
ANON Gaude Maria [11:18] (organum/Vesper responsory, Notre Dome repertory)
ANON Te domine / Te dominum [2:19] (Latin motet, Worcester Manuscript)
Anon Sanctus Christe yerarchia [9:34] (troped Sanctus, Notre Dome repertory)
Hildegard von Bingen O gloriosissimi lux (antiphon) [7 :33]
Ensemble P.A.N. (Project Ars Nova: Laurie Monahan (mezzo); Michael Collyer (counter-tenor); Shira Kammen (vielle and harp); Crawford Young (lute and tanbur)) with guest ensemble Tapestry (Cristi Catt (soprano); Sandra Morales-Ramírez (soprano); Laurie Monahan (mezzo); Daniel Tošič (alto)) and William Hite (tenor), Harlan B Hokin (tenor) and Paul Cummings (baritone)
rec. Studio A, National Music Center, Lenox, MA, 11-14 September 1995. 20-bit DDD with Spatializer © Surround Sound.
Booklet with notes in English and texts in Latin with English translation.
TELARC CD-80448 [69:14]

We’ve probably all seen the ads for ‘the only CD of relaxing classical music you’ll ever need to buy’. This recording doesn’t advertise itself in this way but it could. If you’re looking for the ideal disc to unwind by, this could be it. I commend it alongside my previous recommendation for soothing ‘crossover’ music: if you haven’t yet encountered Karl Jenkins, the mid-price Essential Collection on EMI 3 53244 2 is the best place to start. Otherwise Adiemus is preferable to his Requiem. Placing Angeli in the same league as Adiemus is not meant to be disparaging of either.

Though recorded as long ago as 1995 and now issued at bargain price - around £7 in the UK - I do not recall any previous UK issue of Angeli, though I understand that it was reviewed in the Fanfare magazine in 1996.

As usual, Telarc make a great deal of their recording techniques, even specifying the cable used. Though not in SACD format, this disc is recorded with a technique which claims to give an impression of surround-sound, even with two speakers. Certainly the sound-stage gives the impression of depth, appropriate for this music, as well as lateral separation.

The programme consists of genuine medieval music, two pieces by the now-ubiquitous Hildegard of Bingen, two from the Worcester MS and three from the Notre Dame repertory, together with modern music written in a style evocative of medieval Ars Nova by composers who work with the ensemble.

Patricia van Ness stresses that her music is not designed as imitation-medieval: in combining upper and lower voices she believes that she is overcoming the limitations imposed by the segregation of men and women. Most non-specialist listeners would probably find it hard to tell which pieces here are genuine-medieval and which modern compositions. Van Ness’s three pieces grouped under the title Arcanæ, for example, sometimes sound more like Hildegard von Bingen than Hildegard herself

The booklet contains useful information but is far from exhaustive. It fails, for example, to explain what the Worcester and Notre Dame collections are, or even to give them a date. The Notre Dame School, generally classed as a fore-runner of Ars Nova, flourished from around 1170 to 1250. The Worcester Fragments also date from the 13th-century, short pieces of music and fragments of early Middle English from one collection which came to be dispersed. 25 of them – about a quarter of the total, with no overlap with the works on the present CD – have been recorded by the Orlando Consort on Amon-Ra CDSAR59.

Sanctus Christe yerarchia is described in the track-listing as a ‘troped Sanctus’, with no explanation of what a trope is. As church music developed, there arose a feeling that short pieces such as the Sanctus, sung immediately before the Canon of the Mass in which the elements are consecrated, was not long enough for such a sacred moment. At a very early date the Benedictus was added, to follow the Sanctus, but soon this was not felt to be enough either, so extra words were added to the texts in the missal. The troping in Sancte Christus expands the original considerably and also serves to demonstrate the erudition of the troper: the pseudo-Greek word yerarchia in yerarchia Sabaoth, Lord of Hosts, is pure showing-off.

Most non-specialists will also require some explanation of Te domine/Te dominum: why are there two texts for this piece and what is meant by calling one of them a triplum and the other a duplum? Both texts are expansions of the hymn Te Deum, sung at Matins. Space does not permit a detailed explanation but what happens is that the texts are sung alongside each other, distinguished either by the type of voice employed or by the tempo of each text.

Nor are the translations infallible: the rendering of "O gloriosissimi lux vivens angeli qui infra divinitatem divinos oculos cum mistica obscuritate omnis creature aspicitis" as "O most glorious light, living angels who look on the Divine eyes with the mystic darkness of every creature" is impossible. The full stop in the booklet after ‘angeli’ is incorrect; ‘vivens’ (singular) agrees with ‘lux’, not ‘angeli’ (plural): "O most glorious living light, you angels who …" Later in the same text, it was Satan who was ‘latens’ (skulking, in hiding) rather than, as the translation has it, "he wanted to fly above the hidden pinnacle of God."

The translation of the modern pieces is more accurate: they started life in English and were specially translated into Latin by a Jesuit whose Latinity I would not dare to question apart, perhaps, from his politically-correct rendering of the guardian angel as angela, feminine, a form unknown, I think, to medieval Latin, though Milton assures us that angels may assume either sex, or both:

For Spirits when they please
Can either Sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompounded is thir Essence pure,
Not ti’d or manacl’d with joynt or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they please …
Can execute thir aerie purposes.

Milton’s presumed source, the learned neo-Platonist Johann Weyer, alias Wierus, merely says that dæmons can change at will into male or female. Milton added the ‘or both’.

There are, basically, two ways of performing early music, especially vocal music. One is to emphasise the rough edges, an approach which used to be associated with Musica Reservata and their lead-singer Jantina Noorman. The other extreme is to employ a gentle style and the performers on this Telarc disc certainly incline towards the latter.

In the opening Salve virgo the all-female singers are too dreamy for my liking but matters improve in Arcanæ (tacks 2-4). I have already said that this collection of three pieces sounds Hildegard-like and the singing here is reminiscent of the approach adopted by Sequentia in their numerous recordings of Hildegard.

Ego sum custos angela is a more individual piece by van Ness, less in the Hildegard manner, though still hard for the non-specialist to distinguish from the real medieval pieces. I found this piece more attractive musically than Arcanæ, though the text is a little too ‘new-age’ for my liking. Medieval visionaries like Hildegard and Dame Julian of Norwich would not have thought of angels in the way that this text suggests. The booklet credits harp and tanbur accompaniment for the two van Ness pieces, but these are by no means intrusive, merely providing a pleasing background texture.

In the genuine Hildegard pieces, too, the performers here sound much more like Sequentia than like Gothic Voices on their ground-breaking recording of her music, A Feather on the Breath of God. There is room for both approaches, especially when we know so little about performing styles of the period. At times Hildegard soars into mystic realms which her own paintings and human performers of her music can only hint at, but the performers here come about as close as any modern singers can do.

O lilium convallium and, to some extent, Gaude Maria revert to the rather dreamy style of the opening piece. Gaude Maria rather outstays its welcome if sung in this manner: after all, the words exhort the Virgin Mary to rejoice.

The singing and recording of Te domine/Te dominum are sufficiently clear for the two texts to be clearly differentiated. Here again, I might have preferred a slightly less dreamy style for such laudatory music. Sanctus Christe is sung in a much more declamatory style, appropriate to music and text which are both designed to be showy.

The final piece, Hildegard’s O gloriosissimi lux, rounds off the disc very nicely. I found the performance not quite the equal of that of the other Hildegard items, but more amenable than in the more dreamy items. None of the Hildegard pieces here duplicate the various CDs of her music by Sequentia which I own but I was again reminded of their style.

Apart from Arcanæ and Ego sum custos, the vocal items are performed unaccompanied. The jury will probably remain permanently out on whether music of this period should be accompanied but the approach associated with Christopher Page – normally no accompaniment except very rarely and of the least obtrusive kind – is the safest compromise.

As on some of Page’s Gothic Voices recordings there are two purely instrumental interludes. The first is Crawford Young’s Custos desertorum, the second Shira Kimmen’s Au renouvel. Both are as nearly indistinguishable from the true-medieval as the van Ness pieces: both are well performed on vielle and lute and well recorded. The slightly distant sound accorded to these pieces – well set back in a recording with credible depth, both here and in the vocal items – is preferable to the more up-front style of recording sometimes employed for such music.

This is not really a recording for medieval specialists: they will be better served by one of the Gothic Voices reissues which I have recently reviewed. Those specifically seeking performances of Hildegard of Bingen should, of course, make A Feather on the Breath of God their first port of call: this recording is currently on offer in a special-price 3-CD set, but I hope that Hyperion will soon reissue it on its own. My own pre-recorded cassette version of it is now obsolete (no cassette deck any more) and I already own the two other CDs in the 3-CD pack. Rob Barnett reviewed this CD in 2000 and Em Marshall the 3-CD set earlier this year.

Otherwise there are various recommendable BMG/DHM recordings by Sequentia, some at full-, some at mid- and some at bargain-price.

Non-specialists looking for soothing and uplifting music will probably enjoy what they hear more unreservedly. Just before completing this write-up I spent a whole day watching paint dry, as it were, setting up a new lap-top with Windows Vista to work with a scanner and printer which, although purchased recently, had set-up CDs which were not compatible with Vista. This CD and a 2-CD distillation of the Chapelle du Roi’s Tallis recording which I am about to review provided background music which kept me more or less sane during the process of trying to find suitable drivers on-line. That at least qualifies this CD as attractive background listening.

Brian Wilson


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