Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
Karitas Habundat [2:50]
Deus In Adiutorium [0:44]
O Virtus Sapientie [1:50]
Dixit Dominus [0:45]
O Virtus Sapientie Alio Modo [2:15]
O Beata Infantia [1:27]
Beatus Vir [0:48]
O Beata Infantia Alio Modo [3:27]
Nunc Gaudeant [2:35]
Confitebor Tibi [1:07]
O Successores [1:58]
Azeruz [3:08]
Laudate Pueri [1:04]
O Successores Alio Modo [2:30]
Capitulum [0:22]
O Quam Preciosa [4:16]
O Viridissima Virga [3:08]
O Frondens Virga [1:29]
Magnificat [4:58]
O Frondens Virga Alio Modo [1:29]
O Doctor Optime [4:48]
Zuuenz [5:27]
Sinfonye/Stevie Wishart
rec. 12-14 July 2012, Henry Wood Hall, London
DECCA 476 5117 [52:36]

Riding high in the Classical Charts listings on its release, this is the kind of title which has wide appeal in numerous markets. Hildegard of Bingen has been hot property ever since Hyperion brought out its hit album A Feather on the Breath of God (see review), the magical standard against which numerous subsequent releases have been compared. Early music specialists, Monk mystics, feminists and plain lovers of remarkable music all gravitate towards this remarkable figure, and justifiably so. Hildegard von Bingen’s eloquent melodic shapes evoke an open sky of inspiration and ecstasy, simultaneously inhabiting and breaking out of the idioms and stylistic constraints of medieval religious composition.
Stevie Wishart and Sinfonye indeed already have some respected releases with the Hyperion label, including The Courts of Love, and Gabriel’s Greeting.This Hildegard album is an ambitious combination of reasonably attractively performed early music purity and some added pop sparkle from Whishart’s friend Guy Sigsworth, who has work with Björk to his credit among numerous others. Probably for this reason, you will search in vain for the red and blue Decca Classics logo on this release. Sinfonye has good vocalists and an attractively rustic quality to their ensemble performance. The purely vocal tracks are a little glassy in recorded texture which is a surprise for a Tony Faulkner engineered recording, but things aren’t too bad in general and we can always blame post-production for the end result. Texts and translations are provided in the booklet.
If you expect quiet a pastoral opening take care with your volume control from the outset, the first track Introitus hits us with bells galore, and a cinematic soundscape from which the only thing missing is the deep voice of a narrator saying, “once, long ago, in a far away land…” There are a few tracks which develop on this aspect of the programme, the O beata infantia of track 8 being one, with a sort of Peter Gabriel meets Enya in the monastery feel. Heavy drums and some zingy bass take us to different realms in Azeruz. Keeping a largely acoustic Steeleye Span feel to the sound means we’re not hit too hard with the pop vibe, though the track nearly slips into Los del Rio ‘Macarena’ territory at 2:44. It would appear Guy Sigsworth is no Boris Blank, and an over-acoustic resonance alas makes the sound a bit overloaded and muddy in this case which is a frustration, but it’s all good fun. Inventive vocal arrangements are also part of the deal, and there are some rewarding counter-melodic additions to some tracks. O quam preciosa has a magical moment at 3:15 where the rising vocal lines are taken over by electronic sounds which evoke recorders and mix with string harmonics, but which are alas dispersed before any meaningful development is permitted. There is some nice close-harmony singing in the Magnificat, surprising in context and perhaps a little reminiscent of Herbert Howells in places. Further vocal exoticism is a feature of the penultimate O Doctor optime, which at times creates multi-layered canonic textures, the final vocal wash of sound leading us into a final ZuuenZ which has everything from handbells to what sounds like an electronic hyper-tabla.
If you like your concept albums intelligent, richly textured and subtly coloured in an Art of Sound kind of way then numbers such as this final track will do very nicely. I suspect listeners flocking for Hildegard of Bingen might feel otherwise, and those seeking that Deep Forest kind of groove will find it hard to put up with long swathes of non-garnished medieval singing. I have no problem with either approach but come away with a sense that this album never quite made up its mind one way or another. Download customers can of course pick and choose their own selection of tracks. What we need now is for someone to come along and make a proper ‘Hands on Hildegard’ remix album, and then we can all go shopping for real.
Dominy Clements 

Nice moments, but something of a halfway house.

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