ANONYMOUS (Fourth Century and after) Gregorian Chant -Music of Paradise
The Choir of Buckfast Abbey/Philip Arkwright
rec. 20-21 February 2015, Buckfast Abbey, Devon, United Kingdom. DDD PRIORY PRCD1151 [71:19]
This is a compelling collection of over twenty hymns of the Divine Office. Unlike the majority of texts that form that corpus, this is literature based not on scripture but - in this case - the works of the fourth century ‘Doctor of the Church’, St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. The hymns were written to be sung as didactic, exhortatory works.
Such poetry and chant was looked at askance by the early church for fear that it develop a momentum of its own outside the control of the official doctrine and dogma. Ultimately however it served as a bastion against the subsequent heretical dogma of Arianism: the belief first attributed to Arius (c.250-336) that Jesus Christ is ‘subordinate’ to God the father - hence effectively denying the Trinity.
Each hymn is a prayer composed to be sung, not recited. They celebrate the wonders of simply living:
Lucis Creator optime, lucem dierum proferens, primordiis lucis novae, mundi parans originem…
of being alive in God’s world and of His purpose and even, perhaps, His delight in its fruition. In that respect they are exultatory. Though not as effusive as similar works by, say, Hildegard of Bingen, there is a certainty and confidence in each relatively short work — the longest is under six minutes at 32 lines —which the choir brings out well.
The directness and clarity achieved by the Choir of Buckfast Abbey under Philip Arkwright amply support this plain purpose, although their singing does not stray into the rhetorical; nor is it over-vehement. They preserve the beauty and richness of both text and melody - largely by appealing to the lucidity of the melody coupled with the import of the text.
Indeed, one may detect a certain emphasis on delivery and projection over spontaneity. This is accentuated by the fact that many of the chants consist of short alternating verses, which are taken in turn by male and female voices. This does have the side-effect of throwing into relief the two distinct timbres and textures of the two registers. One is put in mind of the dialogue - the drama even - of the catechism, rather than being caught up in single, unfolding threads.
Given their antiquity and purpose, a certain emphasis on declamation as opposed to excursion is desirable but at times listeners may sense that the choir is relying on the familiar rather than any curiosity of theirs. On the other hand, it could be argued - in view of these works’ origins and intentions - that they make their greatest impact when offered to the listeners as faitsaccomplis. Although we do not know for sure, these performances seem to take as their starting point that for Ambrose there could not - nor should not - be any kind of negotiation or even interpretation.
The singing, though, is in no way unpleasing. Indeed, Arkwright, who was born in 1983 and appointed Organist and Master of the Music at Buckfast in 2013, keeps a tight ship. One knows at least that one is in good hands. More freedom - particularly in terms of tempo - would have been welcome.
The works are of great beauty and convey a certainty at a time in the history of the early Christian church which was not won easily. By the end of the 70 minutes of music on this CD, your feeling is likely to be one of having been persuaded rather than directly stimulated - as is the case with composers like Hildegard.
Note, too, that the last two works (Pange lingua gloriosi and Verbum supernum prodiens [trs. 20-21]) are much later. They’re by St Thomas Aquinas but, as with the other works here, the melodies are taken from the Antiphonale Monasticum of 1934, that is currently used at Buckfast. Can one assume that this is music with which the choristers are very familiar?
The acoustic is the oft-recorded one of Buckfast Abbey, Devon — which is a modern reconstruction dating from the early part of the twentieth century — with a beautiful balance of resonance and penetration; particularly of the higher voices. The 32 page booklet that comes with the CD contains all the text in Latin and English but not a great deal about the music itself.
Jam lucis orto sidere [3:49] Nunc Sancte nobis Spiritus [1:42] Lucis Creator optime [3:17] Te lucis ante terminum [1:40] O lux beata [2:12] Conditor alme siderum [2:45] Vox clara ecce intonat [2:27] Christe Redemptor omnium [4:20] A solus ortus cardine [5:48] Audi benigne Conditor [3:09] Jam Christe sol justitiae [3:03] Vexilla Regis prodeunt [5:15] Lustris sex qui jam peractis [5:59] Aurora lucis rutilat [3:15] Ad coenam Agni providi [4:37] Jesu, nostra redemptio [3:27] Veni Creator Spiritus [4:17] Beata nobis gaudia [5:02] O lux beata Trinitas [1:51] Pange lingua gloriosi [4:39] Verbum supernum prodiens [4:47]
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