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.
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.
are Hildegard’s own poems, and they celebrate a spontaneity
and lack of inhibition that vibrate most authentically:
Qui in ardore ardentis
Et qui in splendore
Et qui intrasti cubiculum
In aurea civitate
Quam construxit rex,
Cum accepit sceptrum
Prebe adiutorium peregrines.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.