ANONYMOUS (13th Century)
Carmina Burana - Le Mystère de la Passion
Procession Des Rameaux
Scène De Marie-Madeleine [23:01]
Scène De Lazare [10:57]
Trahison De Judas [1:31]
Procession Avant La Messe [3:26]
Messe Des Rameaux [14:03]
Messe Des Rameaux [12:25]
Passion De Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ [17:31]
Le Procès [10:20]
Flagellation De Jésus [9:33]
Le Golgotha [19:21]
Déposition [7:32]
Ensemble Organum/Marcel Pérès
rec. 1989, Abbaye d’Ambronay, France
HARMONIA MUNDI HMG501323.24 [70:00 + 78:34]
Carmina Burana 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 ‘occupation’.

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, Deus meus [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 here presented.

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.

Mark Sealey

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