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Anima Mea: Sacred Music of the Middle Ages
Adorna Thalamum [3:02]
Credo, quod Redemptor meus vivit [4:32]
Salutatio Beatae Mariae Virginis [1:37]
Qui habitat in adiutorio altissimi [13:03]
Christe qui lux es et dies [5:52]
Sicut cervus [4:05]
O viriditas digiti Dei [6:08]
Immutemur habitu [2:47]
Per tuam crucem. Miserere [4:16]
Per tuam crucem. Miserere [11:57]
Magnificat [3:35]
Exaudi nos, Domine [3:44]
Ensemble Cosmedin:
Stephanie Haas (voice, bell)
Christoph Haas (bowed paslterium, bells, rubeba, tambura)
rec. Atelier Impuls, Stuttgart, 31 October 2009, 21 August 2010. DDD
NAXOS 8.572632 [64:39]

Experience Classicsonline

According to the blurb, this CD "explores the Christian concept of the soul through these masterpieces of medieval Sacred Music." The capitalisation is misplaced, and their rationale somewhat inane, but the programme itself, by German duo Ensemble Cosmedin, is rather unusual, at least for Naxos.

There is little concrete information about how this music, much of which appeared around 1300, was performed - some of these pieces may even date back into the murky depths of the so-called Dark Ages. There is evidence that Hildegard's music was performed with instrumental accompaniment, despite the strictures of the Church. All the songs are arrangements by Christoph Haas, and as such most are accompanied by the bowed psalterium, a psaltery tuned to produce drones. The first track uses instead a tambura, bells and rubeba (medieval tenor fiddle), the latter being employed solo in track 3, ditto bells in track 5. Haas has a colourful background - though the booklet discreetly omits to say, he had an early career in the Sixties and Seventies as a drummer in rock and jazz bands. His selection of instruments here is more monochrome, but does come over as authentic, even if the choices are the result of informed guesswork.

The twelve songs are fairly self-similar, or at least they are made so by the ubiquity of the psaltery and Stephanie Haas's voice. 'Voice' is the operative word, indeed - she is labelled thus in the track-listing, and a caveat emptor may be appropriate here: Haas's voice is not strictly 'classical' - its faintly stringy quality is rather best described as 'folk', 'ethnic' or 'semi-trained', and may not appeal to those used to the likes of The Sixteen, say, or Anonymous 4. On the other hand, this appears to be a conscious choice, and there is certainly an argument that Haas's earthier style is more realistic: this is music for congregations, not necessarily for immaculate singers. On the whole, Haas is at least as persuasive as the songs she performs (in one case speaks), which is to say: it all depends on personal taste. Her Church Latin pronunciation is generally good, if not immaculate.

The music in all but two of the arrangements is anonymous of author. Most of the texts are Biblical in origin; all are sacred. On the whole, although the music is undoubtedly gentle, becalming and reflective - and 65 minutes' worth of playing time not overly generous - Ensemble Cosmedin's recital will probably benefit from consumption in smaller doses. Otherwise, as with plainchant in general, a feeling of monotony induced by the lack of variation in dynamics, the drone of the psalterium and the narrowness of the melodic line, may begin to usurp mental relaxation or metaphysical rumination. Such is the case especially in the two items that last over ten minutes, as hypnotically serene as they are. Christe qui Lux es et Dies ('Christ, who art light and day') is extraordinary, its long mystical prelude enhanced by Christoph Haas's imaginative use of bells; it almost seems to come from beyond time, and in European terms, given that it was first documented in Milan before the year 534, it does. Hildegard's music stands out for its imagination, and there are other gems. The Haases, a married couple, have recorded several CDs of early music, including two devoted to Hildegard (review).

The CD booklet is in the usual design from Naxos, but the paper is noticeably glossier and thicker. Full texts are included in the booklet, in the original Latin with intelligent German and English translations. Sound is pretty good, though some distortion is evident when Haas sings higher notes - there is no excuse for this not having been picked up by the producer, especially as it was Christoph Haas! The CD does confess to having been mixed, although the slight resonance gives the recording a quality of spaciousness, creating the illusion - abetted by the fact that Stephanie Haas sometimes seems to turn away from the microphone - that Ensemble Cosmedin are performing, appropriately, in a church or chapel.

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