This is not the first time that the Ensemble
Organum have tackled this repertoire. This disc takes a
stride forward even further into the unknown. It presents
a recording of the oldest extant manuscript of Roman Chant.
This can be dated to c.1071. The booklet notes tell us
that this is the fourth in the series. The first was issued
in 1985. They are all Harmonia Mundi discs: HMC901218,
HMC901382, HMC901604. There is also a disc, ‘Music for
the Knights Templar of Jerusalem’ on Naïve
which came out in 2007. All of this
represents some of the oldest music surviving. But why
this fascination and what is old Roman Chant and how is
it different from Gregorian chant?
Not being too technical, I will quote
from the most interesting accompanying booklet essay by
Marcel Peres himself. “The chant of Rome seemed to be the
best preserved musical monument of the Graeco-Latin culture
which they (Charlemagne (742-814) and his priests) wanted
to revive at all costs”. He goes on: “However it was necessary
to adapt Roman liturgy to the new preoccupations of the
ninth century … Gregorian chant, said to have been devised
by Saint Gregory the Great (c.540-604) superseded the original ‘Roman’ chant
which both in style and content dated back to early Christian
times so that by the 13th
Century it had practically
died out.” Its last surviving outpost was, remarkably enough,
in Avignon at the time of the papal schisms.
The disc has been planned as follows.
The occasion is Christmas Eve moving into Christmas Day
beginning with ‘Messe de la Vigile’ represented by an Introit
and a Gradual. This leads into the midnight service: the ‘Messe
de minuit’. The third section, ‘Messe de l’aurore’ (sunrise)
is also represented by just an Introit and Graduel. The
following ‘Messe du jour’ has five sections including a
troped Kyrie then a chanting of the opening of St. John’s
gospel in Orthodox style by Lycourgos Angelopoulos and
finally the ‘Viderunt Omnes’.
Two pages in the booklet show, in reproduction,
some manuscript pages where the squiggles over the words,
actually called neumes are clearly visible. How they are
interpreted to produce a modern performance is a convoluted
subject which I will not go into here. I should also add
that full text and translations into both French and English
are clearly given.
With the Ensemble Organum you get a very
special sound which will not necessarily appeal to everyone.
Their interpretation is based on often very deep drones
which rarely alter during a text. Their vocal style is
modelled on that which can be heard, even to this day,
in the Greek or Russian Orthodox churches. Often a syllable
may take some considerable time to complete being florid
and ornamental. It is delivered in what we might call a
nasal tone. Ensemble Organum was not always quite like
this. Although Lycourgos Angelopoulos has been with them
right from the start, he is Greek and has, since 1977 run
the Greek Byzantine Choir. Peres also used to employ the
French singers Josep Benet, Josep Cabre, François Fauché and
others. These latter have since moved on to form or be
part of their own ensembles. Indeed for his wonderful disc
of Aquitanian Polyphony (1984) Peres also included the
counter-tenor Gérard Lesne. The sound the ensemble now
makes is more consistently Eastern European although amongst
the singers is the American early music specialist Malcolm
Bothwell. It’s significant that they now concentrate on
this very ancient repertory.
There is a real sense of the building
in this recording. The Abbaye de Sylvanès – it’s worth
looking at its website
- is a wonderfully restored
Romanesque Cistercian Abbey now famed for its music festival
and culture. It’s an ideal place for performers to soak
in the atmosphere required for recording such ancient music.
Peres recommends that you turn off the
electric lights and instead light a candle or two to simulate
the best atmosphere. These discs of early chant are extraordinary
and of historic as well as of musical significance. If
you think that you would like to recreate in your sitting
room the world of a thousand years ago in a land somewhere
between Jerusalem and Athens - whilst discovering the mysterious
by-ways of Karanic cantillation - then this disc is for
you. Failing that, if early music is of interest at all
then you need this very early period represented in your
collection. This disc is a very good place to start.