In Praise of Saint Columba - The Sound World of the Celtic Church
Barnaby Brown (triple pipes and lyre); Simon O'Dwyer (medieval Irish horn and bodhrán); Malachy Frame (medieval Irish horn); Liam Crangle (bell and crotal)
The Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber
rec. 2013, St. Peter’s Church, Horningsea, Cambridgeshire
DELPHIAN DCD34137 [76.15]

This disc is an admirably and typically adventurous offering from the choir of Gonville & Caius, Cambridge.  They set out to achieve the impossible by recreating the sound-world of the ancient Celtic church, around the time of the seventh to ninth centuries. 'Impossible' because no notated music - at least as we would recognise it - survives from that time, and we know precious little about the vocal or instrumental styles of the period. Undeterred by this small detail, Geoffrey Webber, Barnaby Brown and their team have set about the task of discovering the unrecoverable with aplomb, and they present here the result of their findings.

I won't go into all the details of their research results here.  In Delphian's admirably detailed notes - which include full texts and English translations - Webber and Brown explain a lot of their work and how their research affected their performance choices. What most listeners will want to know is: what are the results like?

They're never less than interesting.  I had expected this to be a disc of lots of plainchant, and there are, indeed, plenty of examples of that; but it's never dull, and there is far more than that on offer.  There are some elements of the disc that are very jolly, in fact.  Key to that is the contribution of Barnaby Brown, whose piping adds a very special layer of colour.  His is a universe away from the contemporary bagpipes: his triplepipes are much closer to the Northumbrian pipes in sound and intimacy, and they are very evocative of a time gone by, with their reedy sound and constant drone.  Brown gets to end the disc alone with a dazzling solo called The Desperate Battle of the Birds, which is exciting and beautiful, albeit a recomposition of a well known set of variations.

The pipes sound very beautiful both alone and when they accompany the choir, and anyone who thinks that the ancient Celts must have been an unremittingly abstemious lot should listen to track 11, Cantemus in omni die, which bounces along with all the merriment of a dance.  Some moments are much more contemplative, however, and the most extended and impressive example of this is the lengthy "Alphabetic hymn", Altus prosator.   It's beautiful, and fairly hypnotic after a while, but 25 minutes of unison plainchant accompanied only by the strumming of a lyre won't be everybody's cup of tea.

One of the project's most distinctive aspects is its sheer strangeness.  The notes pretty much admit this in describing the "experimental ways" that the disc embraces and admitting that "the final results have no claim to being anything other than imaginative speculations, based as much on intuition as on reason."  Perhaps the best example of that strangeness comes from the instruments that have been assembled — in some cases, created — for the purpose, and none more strange than the medieval Irish horns that duet on track 3, the River Erne horn duet.  This really does feel like a voice from another world, and is valuable for that reason alone.

So hats off to all the artists involved in what must have been a labour of love, and to Delphian for backing it as a recording.  It's a worthy, interesting and, ultimately, rather barmy project, but definitely something for the curious.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Gary Higginson

1. Os mutorum, lux caecorum - c.1340 [3.06]
2. Loquebar de testimoniis tuis - c.965 [3.09]
3. River Erne horn duet – improvisation [4.30]
4. Adiutor laborantium - 13th Century [3.26]
5. Sanctorum piissime Columba - c.1340 [3.19]
6. Lauda anima mea Domine - c.965 [1.43]
7. Noli Pater – music by Barnaby Brown after Gaelic psalm singing [4.53]
8. Carne solutus pater Columba - c.1340 [4.41]
9. Amen dico vobis – c.965 [3.23]
10. Liberesti nos Domine – St. Gallen c.924 [3.24]
11. Cantemus in omini die – melody from Santiago di Compostela - c.1280
12. Altus prosator – music by Barnaby Brown [25.05]
13. Volens Jhesus linere - c.1340 [3.49]
14. Laudate Dominum – music by Barnaby Brown after Gaelic psalm singing [3.30]
15. The Desperate Battle of the Birds - pipe solo by Barnaby Brown [4.30]

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