ANONYMOUS (thirteenth century)
Music and poetry from thirteenth century France
Quo vadis, quo progrederis? [3:14] ***
Genitus divinitus [4:23] **,***
Quod promisit ab eterno [4:31] **, ***
Artium dignitas [2:54] **,***
Relegentur ab area [7:55] *,**,***
Qui servare puberem monophonic [3:23] **
Ut non ponam [3:04] **,***
Qui servare puberem two-part, unmeasured [3:55] **,***
Porta salutis [5:17] **,***
Ista dies celebrari [5:40] **,***
Qui servare puberem two-part, measured [2:42] **,***
Stephani sollempnia [1:02] *,**,***
Beate virginis [5:16] **,***
Qui servare puberem three-part [0:55] *,**,***
Heu quo progreditur [1:47] **,***
Stella serena [3:13] *,**,***
Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor) *
Christopher O'Gorman (tenor) **
John Potter (tenor) ***
rec. 26-28 October, 2011, National Centre for Early Music, St. Margaret's Church, York. DDD
HYPERION CDA67949 [60:39]
 
The conductus occupies a somewhat anomalous position in mediaeval music: it's a vocal form for one or more voices - sacred, but non-liturgical. Flourishing in the period of the ars antiqua (long thirteenth century), it originated in the south of France in the middle of the preceding century - but was at its most developed during the Notre Dame School at the start of the next. Often the subject matter consists of commentaries on religious practice, adherents and abuses. The names and identities of most of the composers who wrote conductus - singular and plural in Latin are the same - are not known to us.
 
The musical style and feel of the conductus are strongly rhythmic. The origins of the form are probably processional. Markedly different from organum and other contemporary polyphonic vocal styles, the conductus has remained somewhat under-performed and unexplored. So it's particularly pleasing to have what looks like the first of a series devoted to it by three such competent and stylistically telling singers as now appear on this excellent offering from Hyperion.
 
The tenors, Rogers Covey-Crump, Christopher O'Gorman and John Potter eschew effect, reverberation and atmosphere in this hour of highly satisfying singing. They favour substance. In the first place, every word, every syllable, is clear. Distinct yet gentle French Latin pronunciation is employed. They simply trust the honest exuberance of the conductus and it works.
 
There is a total of 16 works here; they range in length from just under one to almost eight minutes. The alternation of the sequence adds to our sense of the importance of the text. Indeed, the CD is entitled 'Music and poetry from thirteenth-century France'. The music with its graceful and harmonically strong lines is poetic but the texts are just as colourful Relegentur ab area [tr.5], for instance, begins:
 
May the mud, brick and straw
of Egyptian servitude
be banished from the floor
of the mind of the believer.
 
Indeed, to read the texts in the CD's booklet before starting to listen to the music would be a good way to understand both. There are more than one version of Qui servare puberem included. This is in order to illustrate the ways in which musical ideas were so extraordinarily elaborated in the conductus form. The singers unobtrusively show these ways to be entirely intrinsic to the nature of the text and to the basic melodic ideas which enhanced it.
 
The balance that's been so well struck by these three sensitive interpreters is between the reserved - and at times consciously righteous - tenor of the texts on the one hand and the deliberate and bright way in which the music acted as vehicle for the 'commentary' on the other.
 
To have neglected either at the expense of the other could have verged on parody or propaganda. Instead, each of these singers - and two or three in concert - draws out the beauty, the reticence, almost, that works through understatement. Above all, the singers convey the genuine nature of the conductus style.
 
They use pointed diction, calm phrasing, an unhurried enthusiasm and a sense of the musical architecture to achieve this. Qui servare puberem [tr.11] is highly rhythmic - syncopated. It almost hops along. Yet, in this case, O'Gorman and Potter resist the temptation to conduct a dialogue. Of cold detachment is there none.
 
Similarly Covey-Crump in Stephani sollempnia [tr.12] has no need to anchor events as the almost giddy paean of joy rolls out. It's given just enough air to work a kind of magic which - strangely - succeeds by retaining some of the mystery of St Stephen's Day. As each piece ends and/or takes a new direction, there could have been a 'knowing smile'. Again, this would have verged on the whimsical. It's entirely absent in the singers' performances. Although nothing is taken for granted, there's a kind of beatific inevitability in this account of such emotionally rich music.
 
The singers are very much in tune with one another. The discant (note against note) play of voices in comfortable but tense accord is remarkably effective yet with never a hint of bravado, or bravura. Instead we hear measured, undemonstrative, yet highly energetic, delivery. The voices also sound well together in terms of timbre and texture.
 
The acoustic is clear and unpretentious. It does little to aid the impact of these three clear voices. That's never needed. As a result, the texts and beauty of the melodic lines will remain with you after you've finished listening - not the 'wash' of an experience.
 
Equally to be applauded is the straightforwardly informative and concentrated introductory essay in the booklet, This sets out the 'scope' of the texts of the surviving conductus there were over 800 written. Only with recent scholarship has the form's profile emerged far enough into the light to guarantee reasonable understanding of it. The contrast between the highly rhythmic as opposed to the melismatic still strikes home.
 
The booklet also contains full texts in Latin and sober English as well as brief biographies of Covey-Crump, O'Gorman and Potter. Perhaps the at first spare-sounding, but then poetically rich world of the ars antiqua is new to you. Then again, you may wish to have enduringly valid articulations of some gems of the conductus form, each fresher than the last. If so, then don't hesitate to look long and hard at this collection.
 
Mark Sealey
 
A striking survey of an overlooked mediaeval vocal form with highly effective performances from three expert tenors.