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CD: Crotchet

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
O magne pater, antiphon [3:01]
O eterne Deus, antiphon [2:14]
Ave generosa, hymn [4:48]
O frondens virga, antiphon [5:24]
O felix anima, response for St Disibod [4:17]
Ave Maria, O auctrix, response [4:24]
O quam mirabilis, antiphon [6:20]
O virtus Sapientiae, antiphon [2:55]
O vis eternitatis, response [5:59]
Peter ABELARD (1079-1142)
Planctus David [9:23]
O quanta qualia, hymn [4:54]
Anonymous Aquitanian Repertory (mid 13th century)
Promat Chorus Hodie [3:22]
Annus Novus in Gaudio [4:42]
Fulget dies celebris (St. Martial, Limoges) [2:07]
Ensemble Fr Fruhe Musik, Augsburg
rec. Germany? 1990? DDD

Experience Classicsonline

Even among non-specialists in 'early' music, the twelfth century mystic, poet, abbess and composer, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) is comparatively well known. If for no other reason than the huge success of a clutch of CDs a generation ago… 'A Feather on the Breath of God' by Gothic Voices (Hyperion 66039) is the most famous. Because of her remoteness and at the same time her unmistakable idiom, Hildegard's work is immediately identified. But this CD from the Ensemble Fr Fruhe Musik, Augsburg may come as a bit of a shock.

It is a reissue from 1990. But not much more information is available (see below). The more familiar 'aura' of Hildegard is one of ecstatic, soaring and highly mellifluous unaccompanied female voices gently though forcefully negotiating rhetorical, even oratorical, hymns in praise of Christ and God. Those characteristics are still recognisable on this CD. But most of the songs are accompanied by equally colourful mediaeval instruments: hurdy-gurdy, lyre, psaltery, recorder, shawm and vielle. Although a good case for such accompaniment can be made, it's by no means accepted universally by musicologists. At best, there can be no way of knowing which instruments (if any) sounded best to twelfth century ears. These arrangements of the Ensemble Fr Fruhe Musik must be considered essentially modern in conception and execution.

This ought not either to devalue the music's impact; or to lessen your enjoyment of it. The performances are never over-florid, nor showy. Listen to the simplicity of the way the vielle, recorder and harp embellish (not detract from) the melodic lines in O quam mirabilis [tr.12]. In similar vein, the profundity of another of the most affecting antiphons here collected, O virtus Sapientiae [tr.13], is underlined by the plangency of vielle, again, and psaltery. Just that the whole has something of the feeling of a 'presentation'; less of that inevitability with which we associate Hildegard. A supreme sense of peace or exhilaration born of the religious conviction is evident. We know this to have been so important to the abbess. In capturing this elusive mood she was extremely accomplished. Here those (and other) qualities of the music are somewhat consciously dressed up. It's a valid experiment; but not one that will necessarily endure when other recordings closer to what we have grown accustomed to taking as the essence of Hildegard work so well.

On the other hand, the singing and playing are obviously meticulously prepared. Their articulation is clear, clean and penetrating - if a little 'operatic' at times. When the last notes of the beautiful O vis eternitatis [tr.14] have died away, the integrity and wisdom of Hildegard will almost certainly have reasserted themselves.

Also on this CD are two pieces by Abelard, the French scholastic logician, philosopher and theologian with whom Hlose famously dallied. And - grouped together in the middle - three anonymous works from Aquitaine in Southwest France, a repertory that consists of some of the oldest polyphonic music (from the tenth to early thirteenth centuries) in Europe. Again, the rationale for this is not immediately obvious - unless both to contrast with and thus reinforce the perception of Hildegard's perhaps rather ingenuous mysticism.

The 'Digipak' contains the single CD of just over an hour's music with a glued-in booklet consisting of a short introduction to 'Hildegard… and her Time' and the texts in Latin and modern German. Little else; nor does the Christophorus website contain more information. That of the Ensemble Fr Fruhe Musik (which does not appear to have been updated since 2006) makes no mention of the CD. So you're on your own: no sense of how and when it was first recorded, or how the CD was conceived and with what purpose. The music, though, and level of performance are what matters. Although not conventional Hildegard, it's certainly worth a look.

Mark Sealey



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