LÉONIN (‘Magister Leoninus’) (fl.1150s-c.1201)
Magister Leoninus, Vol. 1: Sacred Music from 12th-century Paris
Alleluya. Non vos relinquam orphanos [8:05]
Alleluya. Dulce lignum, dulces clavos [8:02]
Alleluya. Spiritus Sanctus procedens [7:14]
Alleluya. Paraclitus Spiritus Sanctus [8:40]
Priusquam te formarem [8:44]
Alleluya. Inter natos mulierum [8:07]
Viderunt omnes fines terre [8:13]
Alleluya. Dies sanctificatus illuxit nobis [6:32]
Alleluya. Pascha nostrum immolatus est [6:07]
Red Byrd (John Potter, Richard Wistreich); Cappella Amsterdam
rec. Grote Kerk, Naarden, Netherlands, 4-5 December 1996. DDD.
Texts and translations included.

Having given this reissue a ‘thumbs up’ recommendation, I’m going to qualify it at the very outset by warning that Léonin’s style may well not be to the taste even of those readers who like medieval music and who have purchased some or all of the Helios reissues of Gothic Voices’ recordings of medieval repertoire. Those who have already sampled and liked Léonin - perhaps having heard his best-known work, Viderunt omnes (track 7 on this CD) - may buy with total confidence.

It’s almost impossible to describe the music of Léonin and the school of composers who followed him; if you saw the first of the programmes on sacred music on BBC4 some time ago, however, you will have some idea of what it sounds like. Otherwise, I recommend that you listen to some or all of the extracts from this CD, available on the Hyperion website. You’ll also be able to download the booklet from this source, containing helpful notes by Mark Everist.

Essentially, Léonin takes the simple plainchant and elaborates it - the beginning of the process which came to be known as polyphony. Many later medieval examples of polyphony became so complex that the decoration, often set to words added to the original text and sometimes irrelevant to it, overshadowed the melody and the words became lost in such a jumble that both reformers and the Roman Catholic Council of Trent legislated to simplify matters. Legend has it, apocryphally, that Palestrina’s Missa Papæ Marcelli narrowly saved the day for polyphony.

Léonin’s music is far less complex than that. There are three strands: the choral plainchant, sung here by the Cappella Amsterdam, and two solo voices, John Potter and Richard Wistreich, which weave in and out of each other in the more elaborate sections. Usually one voice moves slowly, the other more quickly, turning single syllables into many, as in the best-known piece here, viderunt omnes, where the first syllables of omnes and Dominus and the first three syllables of revelavit are extended.

The resulting sound must have had a major impact on the citizens of Paris, where Léonin and subsequently Pérotin were based at Notre Dame - probably comparable with jazz or rock and roll in the 20th century and with as many dissenting establishment voices, too. To the modern ear the sound is soothing but in the mid-to-late 12th century it would have seemed revolutionary.

We know very little about Magister Leoninus, as he was known; he may have been Canon Leo of Notre Dame and he may have been the poet after whom the Leonine form was named. Later generations called his musical style ars antiqua, in contrast with later developments which came to be known as ars nova. It certainly didn’t sound old-fashioned, however, to his contemporaries.

The performances here manage to convey something of the shock of the new, though the singing of Messrs. Potter and Wistreich is much smoother than on many of Red Byrd’s recordings. They are well supported by Cappella Amsterdam in the full-choir sections and well recorded by Hyperion.

Gary Higginson, reviewing Volume II (see below) thought the Capella a little too closely recorded on this first CD and preferred the sound accorded to Yorvox, in a different location, on the sequel, but I was not at all troubled by this. The notes are brief but informative.

Some of the works on this Helios CD are duplicated on David Munrow’s Music of the Gothic Era (DG Archiv 471 7312, 2 mid price CDs), which offers Viderunt omnes and Pascha nostrum together with two other Léonin items, two works by the other Notre Dame composer Pérotin, and several other items from roughly the same period. Several of Munrow’s practices are now regarded as unscholarly - the inevitable fate of those first in the field - but still very enjoyable. I am no more likely to dispose of any of his recordings with the Early Music Consort than I am to dispose of my 2-volume Skeat edition of Langland’s Piers Plowman, though its text has long been superseded by the Athlone and Schmidt editions.

Another DG Archiv recording, from the Orlando Consort, also offers the music of Léonin (no overlaps this time) and Pérotin (477 5504, mid price). There is also a Naxos recording of Léonin and Pérotin which Gary Higginson strongly recommended (8.557340 - see review).

Best of all, a second volume of Léonin’s music currently languishes in Hyperion’s archives, available only as a CDR to special order (CDA67289). I imagine that its fate rests upon sales of the reissue of Volume I; if you would like it to be generally available again, as I would, you know what to do. Where Volume I concentrates on the festal texts with Alleluia, the second contains music for Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

Having listened to that second volume in lossless flac sound, courtesy of Hyperion’s fledgling download site, which may be generally available by the time that you read this review, I can recommend it to those in tune with the idiom even more strongly than Volume I. I am completely in accord with Gary Higginson who wrote of Volume II: “For me then this is an outstanding release where scholarship and superb vocal musicianship go hand in hand. I am left in admiration of the entire project” - see review.

I opened this review with a sideways glance at the wonderful series of recordings which Gothic Voices made for Hyperion. The high quality of the current recording of Léonin provides an excellent opportunity to remind readers of them, starting with their ground-breaking recording of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen’s music, A Feather on the Breath of God, still available at full price and worth every penny (CDA66039) or in a specially priced 3-CD set of Award Winners (CDS44251/3). Hildegard’s music comes from the generation before Léonin but, if anything, sounds even more hypnotic to the modern ear. If you don’t already have that recording, place your order at the same time as (I hope) you purchase this Léonin CD.

If you want to hear how Pérotin developed the style of Léonin, try one or both of the DG Archiv recordings, or the Naxos. The one work attributed to him, Presul nostri temporis which is included on Gothic Voices The Spirits of England and France 1, another budget-price Hyperion Helios CD, is not one of his best works - if, indeed, it is by him - but the CD as a whole is as recommendable as the current Léonin disc (CDH55281 - see my review).

Brian Wilson