is the name of the collection of about 250 mostly
secular poems and dramatic texts from the 11th to 13th centuries by students
and clergy at the Benediktbeuern monastery in Bavaria; ‘Burana’ is ‘Beuern’
- short for Benediktbeuern.
Less well known are two different versions of the Passion in the same
collection, at its end; and most likely written in the later 13th century.
They’re much more serious than the bawdy and satirical texts, some of which
were set by Carl Orff in 1936 to form the cantata of the same name.
Splendid music in its own right, the ‘Great Mystery of the Passion’ — so
called to distinguish it from its less elaborate counterpart — uses a text
which combines ruminative song with narrative and declamatory passages and
distinct and forward-looking characterisation. The latter was an aspect of
drama that resurfaced again in other parts of Europe only in the 15th
century mystery plays … ‘mystery’ here connotes 'mysteries' or
plays performed by the craft guilds: the Latin ‘misterium’ is
The music for such dramas was part of the liturgy itself, and was
originally heard either during the night, at the end of Matins, or between
the procession and Introit of the Mass for the day. Eventually the Passion
attracted an ‘audience’; and the formerly short ‘apparition’ grew into a
recognisable ‘performance’ often taking place outside the cathedrals which
had become the focus of worship. This Mystère de la Passion was created at
the time in which these transitions were well under way.
It’s also a medium with a mix of dramatico-musical genres: at its heart is
Chant. The narrative and dialogue, even ensemble passages, all reinforce one
another to make a compelling and rich whole which is communicative of the
very essence of the Passion.
To listen to the turns, progress, sadness, exultation, certainties and
regrets as conveyed with such force and conviction here by Pérès and the
Ensemble Organum, which he co-founded as long ago as 1982, is a striking,
complete and highly satisfying experience.
The recording reissued here by Harmonia Mundi dates from over a quarter of
a century ago. It’s actually the result of a stage production by the
‘Atelier Lyrique du Rhin’ in 1988. That was not without challenges
… not least the absence of notation any more precise than neumatic in
the original manuscript. One has such faith in Pérès and his scholars to
accept his sense of the dramatic, of space, of interlocution, of the
expression of individual and collective emotion and the authority with which
this most solemn of stories is delivered. There’s not a waver or flinch:
listen to the power of the declamation in the ‘Profession de Lazare’ [CD.1
tr. 21], for instance or to the steady sureness and inner conviction
expressed without undue pride, yet with great self-possession, in Deus,
[CD.2 tr.1]. In the extreme energy of the externalising of
this faith is a peace quietly accompanied by gentle technical accomplishment
that comes to pervade the entire unfolding of the events of the Passion as
Despite the recording’s age, it is as fresh and full of impact as if very
recent. There’s Cyrille Gerstenhaber’s signature throaty delivery, the drone
singing (vibrant, full and effective); listen to the ‘Accessit at pedes’ of
her absolution [CD.1 tr.15], for example. Throughout, the vowels are open
and project the emotion from what seems like the very souls of the
participants. Yet phrasing is always controlled and apposite … fitting and
supporting the sense of the text. Tempi
are as dignified as they
are consistent and conducive to reflection. Shortly after the
above-mentioned chorus, Mary Magdalene’s solo prayer is exposed, and so
contrastingly sweet and simple.
This is not to say that the rawness and force of the singing, the at times
almost violent colour of the text’s rueful descriptions and regretful
assertions, jar. Instead, they slowly and inexorably compose an act of
recognition which seems to emanate in generations of these Bavarian
believers’ hearts. Such is the technical skill and experience of Pérès and
the Ensemble Organum.
The acoustic of the Eleventh Century Benedictine abbey of Our Lady of
Ambronay in France is extremely spacious and atmospheric. Yet relatively
close miking by the Harmonia Mundi engineers ensures that the music is what
we hear, not the ‘event’. There is significant reverberation yet the pace at
which Pérès drives the music means that space adds to our experience, rather
than swamping or obscuring it. The booklet contains an illuminating essay by
Pérès with the texts in Latin and German and a French only translation.
There is a reconstruction from 1982 of the other Passion with the Schola
Cantorum Basiliensis under Thomas Binkley from 2000 on Deutsche Harmonia
Mundi (77813). Otherwise Pérès and the Ensemble Organum have the field to
themselves; a not unsatisfactory situation given the precision, energy and
musicality of this two and a half hours of music.