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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Chant de L’Eglise De Rome: VI-VIII Centuries
Messe de la Vigile - Introit: Hodie Scietis [5.13]; Graduel: Hodie scietis [7.57]; Messe de minuit – Introit - Dominus dixit ad me [6.09]; Graduel- Tecum Principium [5.48]; Alleluia: Dominus dixit ad me [4.04]; Offertoire: Letentur celi et exultet terra [6.30]; Communion –In spledoribus venit in nomine sanctorum [4.13]; Messe de ‘l’aurore -  Introit: Lux fulgebit [3.04]; Graduel: Benedictus qui venit [5.08]; Messe du jour – Introit: Puer natus est nobis [5.41]; Kyrie eleison [ 6.47]; Alleluia: Dies sanctificatus [4.26]; Prologue de l’Evangile selon St Jean [ 7.22]; Communion: Viderunt omnes [6.24]
Ensemble Organum/Marcel Peres
rec. March 2008, Abbaye de Sylvanès -France
Experience Classicsonline

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 Ambroisie 9997 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preoccupations of the ninth century … Gregorian chant, said to have been devised by Saint Gregory the Great (c.540-604) superseded the original ‘Roman’ chant which both in style and content dated back to early Christian times so that by the 13th Century it had practically died out.”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.
Gary Higginson

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