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Pilgrimage to Montserrat
The Renaissance Players/Winsome Evans
rec. St. Peter’s Sydney, no date given
Full details at end of review
TALL POPPIES TP229 [2 CDs: 118.45]

Over the last few years there have been a number of recordings of music from the Llibre Vermel. This is a manuscript of popular pilgrim songs copied at the extraordinary monastery church situated on the jagged mountain of Montserrat outside the city of Barcelona. I have reviewed two or three of them.

I have however noticed an increase in what I might call the ‘liberalisation’ of the interpretations. In the 1960s and 1970s groups and choirs simply sang the music as it was written with the minimum of percussion for example. This means that the nine or ten songs were got through in say, fifteen minutes or so. It must be remembered that four of the songs come down to us as monophonic. These include Cuncti simus or Laudemus virginem which has one melody, but with instructions to sing as a three-part canon. Four are in three parts; two are in two parts. The forty-page booklet for this recording is superb and has two tables adumbrating each piece. For instance Los se goyts has four components: 1. a ballada in form; 2. a danse redon; 3. monophonic and 4. is in Catalan and Latin - in other words, macaronic.

I’m proud to say that I have joined pilgrims to Montserrat twice. On neither occasion however have we been brave enough to tackle the difficult mountain footpath from the lower road. On one occasion we took the cable car, but on both occasions we sang as we travelled; Stella Splendens was one such mantra. Once there you may experience a sense of disappointment as the abbey was rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century after being destroyed by Napoleon’s troops in 1811. You are not permitted to see the manuscript of the Llibre Vermel: The ‘Red Book’ so called because it was covered in red velvet for protection. You can however queue to touch the ancient Black Madonna and walk in the mountains to see the various wayside shrines. It is she that the pilgrims have for centuries desired to touch and to pray to. The other pilgrimage, of even greater fame is the one to North-West Spain — to Santiago de Compostella. It may be that some of these songs are interchangeable.

As the booklet reminds us under the sub-heading ‘Pilgrims’, visitors to Montserrat are from all over the world. That was also the case in the middle ages when Christians from eastern Europe and the middle east would have joined western Europeans in their walk, probably from Barcelona where they landed, to the monastery. This very fact has largely inspired this recording project.

You will recall that when Bartók and Kodály went around Bulgaria, Rumania and Hungary in the period 1902-5, collecting the folk music, they encountered, much to their surprise, irregular rhythms and phrase lengths not found in the Western music they knew. 7/8 or 5/8 or even 11/8 were heard and seemed natural especially for dancing. Winsome Evans who directs The Renaissance Players takes the view that most of the Llibre Vermel melodies can be so treated. Whereas most other recordings are happy to stay with traditionally notated compound time signatures as in Imperayritz de la cuitat or 4/4 as in Stella Splendens, Evans uses 5 time for the former and latter and 7 time for Polorum regina. In addition Evans has composed introductions and extra music breaking up the verses, imitating in most cases the circle dances which she maintains were so very popular in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and which would have entertained pilgrims.

Further to that she introduces instruments such as the Arabic Ud and the Tapan, an Indian drum — both in Polorum regina. There are also a Zils (finger cymbals) and a Daireh both appearing in a transcription of a troubadour song by Colin Muset, one of the secular pieces interspersed amongst the Llibre Vermel pilgrim songs. Medieval instruments like the bombarde, the shawm and the gemshorn are used. These are mostly outdoor instruments although the more intimate rebec and harp and duct flute. These are employed for gentler moments in the belief that pilgrim and troubadour songs would have been performed indoors as well. There are also passages in which the singers vocalise to ‘la’. These deliberately espouse a more nasal, eastern vocal technique and sound. This means that songs, which used to take, say four minutes to perform, are now elongated, as in Polorum, to more than ten. Ad Mortem Festinamus, a dance of death, weighs in at over fourteen minutes and still not all of the verses are performed.

As well as the Llibre Vermel itself Evans has inserted instrumental dance pieces based on, in some cases the songs. For instance, the Stella Splendens is followed by the instrumental Xoros Stella, an improvisation around the original. As well as the Muset song mentioned, a song by Peire d’Alvernhe Chanterai d’arquetz trobadores, derived from a thirteenth century Catalan source is used. It is played as a "boisterous, quasi-rustic circle dance" suggested "by the last two lines of Piere’s lyrics – a list of contemporary pop musicians". Evans also adds descants and polyphonies to songs. This is done most successfully in the amazingly beautiful Maria Matrem.

The idea of a circle is further exemplified — the maze on the floor of Chartres Cathedral is illustrated in the booklet — by the two 'ghost' tracks, which phase into and out of tracks heard at the start of the CD. The last is called Vale Robin Anderson, a well-known Australian filmmaker who died in 2002 at the age of only 51 having completed a film documentary (Face the Music) about the closure of the Music Department on the main campus of Sydney University.

The Renaissance Players consist of nineteen musicians playing a variety of instruments; of the nineteen, nine are singers. The musicians are all named in a list at the back of the booklet.

In a sense if you like this group’s approach then you will find that these are colourful and often exciting renditions. You might well think that they bring medieval music to the kind of life that we only occasionally glimpse when we walk into an ancient church which is still covered with elaborate wall paintings in vivid greens, blues and reds. On the other hand you might feel that these beautiful, simple melodies have been robbed of their gentle spirituality. I fall somewhere between the two stools. I can’t say that I really like yards and yards of loud 7/8 with screeching wind instruments, lots of hand-clapping and sometimes rather raucous voices. On the other hand it's quite possible that this is exactly what this music might have sounded like. It's also possible that both methods were employed at different times.

Of other versions, if you are coming to this music for the first time you might prefer to investigate more sober recordings. That really means most of the others but those by Alla Francesca (Opus 111 30-131) or Capella de Ministrers (Licamus CDM0201) I have especially enjoyed.

Tall Poppies provide texts and translations as well as the quoted essay by Winsome Evans in which she explains his approach to each piece with certain points highlighted in red.

Gary Higginson

Contents listing
 
ANON unless otherwise stated

CD 1 [60.54]
Vale Robina Anderson - Ad honorem tui Christe [3.16]
Winsome Evans Estampie cuncti simus [3.15]
Polorum regina [10.18]
Laudemus virginem [3.03]
Colin MUSET (c.1210-1270)/Winsome Evans Rota en mai quant li rossignolet chantent:
Los set goyts [12.57]
Rota mors vite properia (Winsome Evans) [6.20]
Ad mortem festinamus [14.42]
Ghost: Chanterai d’asqetz trobadores - Ye Sigh (an excerpt) [2.01]

CD 2 [57.51]
Stella Splendens [9.13]
Winsome Evans Xoros stella [2.30]
O virgo splendens [3.11]
Imperayritz de la cuitat joyosa - Verges ses par misericordiosa [9.31]
Mariam matrem [8.03]
Winsome Evans: i. Xoros vale Robina / ii. Splendens ceptigera [4.24]
Peir D’ALVERNHE (c.1130-1180)/Winsome Evans Chanterai d’aquera trobadores [7.01]
Cuncti simus concanentes [12.04]
Ghost: Vale Robina Anderson [1.46]