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Conductus 3 Anonymous - Thirteenth
Century French Fas Et Nefas [4:09] A Globo Veteri [4:59] Vite Perdite [5:45] A L'entrant Del Tans Salvage [3:04] Per Dan Que D'amor Mi Veigna [3:22] O Qui Fontem Gratie [7:50] Transgressus Legem Domini [7:32] Sede, Syon, in Pulvere [5:39] Olim Sudor Herculis [8:54] Eclypsim Passus Totiens [2:17] Homo, Natus Ad Laborem [8:02]
John Potter (tenor); Christopher O'Gorman (tenor); Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor)
rec. 7-8 April 2014, National Centre for Early Music, St. Margaret’s Church, York. DDD HYPERION CDA68115 [61:35]
The conductus (plural also ‘conductus’) was a sacred, though non-liturgical, vocal form of the ars antiqua period. It is now thought that this type of composition originated in the middle of the twelfth century in the south of France and was at the height of its use during the time of the Notre Dame School a hundred years later.
The Latin conducere is ‘to escort’; this perhaps explains the lowly reputation of the genre. The conductus was probably sung while the lectionary was being carried from its place of safekeeping to where it was to be read from.
There are - perhaps somewhat surprisingly - more than 800 examples of conductus poetry, of which over 80% have musical settings. Over half are monophonic, under a third are in two parts and the vast majority of the rest are for three and four voices: 111 and 3 works respectively.
When listened to with an open mind, these conductus hold their own with their close family members, the organum and motet. The texts are vibrant, intriguing, profound, sharp and full of meaning. Again, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, manuscripts which contain conductus are known to exist from Scotland to southern Germany, from Spain to Poland.
Tenors John Potter, Christopher O'Gorman and Rogers Covey-Crump have produced a series of three splendid CDs on the ever-enterprising Hyperion label. These offer a selection of conductus which at the very least will whet your appetite and encourage you to look into an undeservedly overlooked field of mediaeval music. Volume I was reviewed here and Volume II here.
The variety of this music may very well be the first thing that strikes you. Listen, for instance, to the springy, Per Dan Que D'amor Mi Veigna [tr.5] it has the personality of a chanson by Fauré or Britten:
Per dan que d’amor mi veigna non laisserai que joi e chan no manteigna Tu cant viurai…
(As long as I’m alive
though love may well mean pain
I shall always strive
to seek joy and song - again and again…)
The singing needs directness. Yet it must be acknowledged that its immediacy leaves ‘nowhere to hide’. Potter, O’Gorman and Covey-Crump are more than suited to the style, the idiom and the rigour required. As you become increasingly familiar with the music, you’re likely to be struck by what Mark Everist in the CD’s booklet calls its ‘ambition’. Over half the works here are very substantial in feel and length; none of the others is trivial or ‘minor’. Indeed, the poetry - organised syllabically, not quantitatively, by rhyme, and end accent - is intricate and complex. So much so, in fact, that some scholars have doubted the music’s purpose as processional given the challenges of vocalisation when accompanied by movement.
A trap into which these singers splendidly fail to fall is homogeneity: the conductus range from a highly concentrated ethical homily (Eclypsim Passus Totiens [tr.10]) to a work clearly referencing secular song (Vite perdite [tr.3]). Their styles are intelligently adapted to tone, intent and style. On the other hand, there is never any attempt to ‘sell’ the music to an audience probably relatively unfamiliar with it. There's no spurious waving, raising or lowering of temperature, pace or projection is necessary so none is employed.
Although there are references in these works to the ecclesiastical year, this third CD contains none of the Marian music which graced the first two volumes. A globo veteri [tr.2], for instance, concerns love. Homo, natus ad laborem [tr.11] is a kind of catechism between body and soul while Olim sudor Herculis [tr.9] addresses the labours of Hercules. Note the inclusion of ‘sudor’, sweat; while not raw, these are pointed works.
The acoustic of St. Margaret’s Church, York suits this music very well: there is just the hint of reverberation to suggest space around the three voices, and - significantly - to point up the differences in timbre and register between them. On the other hand it does not swamp their delicacy. Indeed, that quality, too, remains with the listener after the hour-long performance.
The booklet is up to Hyperion’s usual high standards with an informative essay on the conductus - particularly the thorny issues of rhythm - brief bios of the singers and the full texts in Latin and French with English.
If this is new music to you and you are fascinated with the often unexpected development of Western music as it feels its way from plainchant to the polyphony of Pérotin, then these three CDs — sadly, this is the last — are for you. If you appreciate pure, fragrant yet confident singing of a repertoire which is as expressive and accessible as it has an unjustified reputation for being ‘remote’, then don’t hesitate. A small but bright jewel.