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Hildegard von BINGEN (1098-1179)
Celestial Harmonies
O cohors milite floris [15:42]
O successores fortissimi leonis [8:21]
O vos imitatores excelse [6:34]
O dulcis electe [6:19]
O victoriosissimi triumphatores [9:37]
O cruor sanguinis [6:05]
O vis aeternitatis [8:58]
O splendidissima gemma [12:43]
Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly
rec. 10-11 August 2005, Chapel of Hertford College, Oxford, United Kingdom. DDD
NAXOS 8.557983 [74:18]


Experience Classicsonline

The distinctive style of Hildegard makes her an easy composer to caricature. Large intervals; airy, open vowels; a clear and almost piercing blend of words and melody which hovers between peace and ecstatic agitation. After Hildegard’s ‘elevation’ to cult status following the spectacular success of the ‘A Feather on the Breath of God’ CD (Hyperion CDA66039) in the early 1980s, performers have had to be careful not to ape the ‘soaring’, ‘spellbinding’ style; but to present the music for what it is.

It is paradoxical music in some ways. Hildegard’s own life was not that of the frugal, austere nun. Rather, it was an ostentatious one, which addressed the needs of an elite. So her music combines sensuality with devotion, beauty with faith, belief with an appealing lack of caution. The twin challenges for singers are that they not enter too wildly into this rapture: it was carefully contrived. Nor that they draw the emotional teeth of what is nevertheless free and persuasive music. 

The Oxford Camerata was founded by Jeremy Summerly almost 25 years ago. Celestial Harmonies is proof that they easily have the measure of these dangers. The singing here is focused, controlled – almost reserved - yet full of delight and animation without approaching abandon. Their style is certainly reflective without being cautious or downbeat. Celestial Harmonies should join the list of about a dozen and a half CDs which contain music exclusively by Hildegard. It will suit specialist and curious collectors of mediaeval choral music alike.

Living to the age of 80, Hildegard spent almost all her life in the convent of which she was abbess for the latter half. When she was in her early fifties she completed the collection, Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum, which comprises nearly 80 songs and a ‘music drama’. It is from this collection that the eight songs (varying in length from just over six to nearly sixteen minutes) on this excellent CD are taken.

The songs are addressed, variously, to different personae of God (the Creator, the Redeemer), to Mary, St. John, the Apostles, Confessors and Martyrs. The forms Hildegard uses here - antiphons, psalm fragments and responsories – reinforce the impact of the texts she wrote by lending to their unflagging momentum a generous helping of rhetoric. 

These are Hildegard’s own poems, and they celebrate a spontaneity and lack of inhibition that vibrate most authentically: 

O dulcis electe,
Qui in ardore ardentis
Effulsisti, radix,
Et qui in splendore Patris
Elucidasti mistica,
Et qui intrasti cubiculum castitatis
In aurea civitate
Quam construxit rex,
Cum accepit sceptrum regionum:
Prebe adiutorium peregrines. 

for example, is at the same time rough and deliberate. It was not enough for Hildegard to centre her themes around ‘ethereal’ or ‘uplifting’ language for its own sake. They had both to be the basis for exciting and colourful melody; and to render the meeting of words and music in ways consistent with the devotional weight she gladly bore. 

This successful performance by the Oxford Camerata and Summerly remains grounded in the substance of adoration without overdoing awe or submissiveness. They achieve this by articulating each phrase in a concrete manner, and not lingering; by not trying to ‘overblow’ the vowels, and by underplaying climaxes. But never to the extent of making Hildegard’s lines and textures either dull or lacklustre. 

The members of Oxford Camerata in this recording are eight: four women and four men. Somehow, it seems odd to hear men’s voices in these delicate and graceful pieces: it may take a few hearings to settle into receiving what Hildegard wanted to give, ignoring the hand that offers it. 

What you will hear in this recording is not an arrangement, not an illusion, not a re-interpretation of Hildegard. This is purely her own music. But its authenticity, its penetration and thus its impact (not least on listeners used to attempts to ‘capture’ the ‘world’ of Hildegard) are direct, undecorated and modern. Oxford Camerata presents stainless steel, not brass.

The recording is clear, intimate and has just enough atmosphere to add to the beauty and depth of the music. Summerly’s liner notes are short and to the point; the full texts are there in Latin and Summerly’s own English translations. 

A splendid contribution to Hildegard’s growing discography by singers who know the field too well to falter. They are led by a conductor prepared to stamp a twenty-first century personality on music almost a thousand years old and stand by his results. The results are quite in keeping with the composer’s intentions. 

Mark Sealey 



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