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Llibre Vermell de Montserrat
14th century songs and dances in honour of the Black Madonna of Montserrat
O Virgo splendens, canon for 3 voices (Llibre Vermell) [3:57]
Stella splendens in monte, virelai for 2 voices (Llibre Vermell) [7:30]
Laudemus virginem, canon for 3 voices [2:15]
Los Set gotxs recomptarem [7:31]
Splendens ceptigera [2:05]
Polorum Regina [6:03]
Cuncti simus concanentes [5:02]
Mariam Matrem Virginem, virelai for 3 voices (Llibre Vermell) [7:22]
Imperayritz de la Ciutat Joiosa [6:52]
Ad Mortem Festinamus, virelai (fol. 26v) [7:14]
O Virgo splendens, canon for 3 voices (Llibre Vermell) [3:21]
La Capella Reial de Catalunya
Hespèrion XXI/Jordi Savall
rec. live, 25 November 2013, Church of Santa Maria del Pi, Barcelona
Package includes DVD film of the concert
ALIA VOX AVSA9919 SACD/DVD [71:46]

This is one of those releases - so rare in the normal run of things and yet so common with Jordi Savall - that isn’t just a recording but a window into another world.

North of Barcelona sits the hill of Montserrat, a place of such importance to Catalans that, in his typically excellent booklet note, Josep Maria Gregori I Cifré describes it as a part of the sacred and mythological geography of Catalonia, as special to the Catalans as Mount Sinai is to the Jews.  Atop its jagged summit (the name means “serrated mountain” in Catalan) sits the monastery of Santa Maria, which houses the famous “Black Madonna”, La Moreneta, a holy object which has drawn pilgrims since the 12th century.  The Llibre Vermell, or “Red Book” is a collection of music, hymns, writings and much more that has been the crown of the monastery’s archives for centuries, and it is music from that which Savall and his team perform here.

It’s remarkable.  The scholarly yet accessible booklet note will explain why in much more detail than I can here, but the main thing that struck me as a listener was just how rhythmic and foot-tapping so much of the music is.  Indeed, it is believed that much of it was written to be danced in the church or the cloisters, a most unusual practice for medieval Christians.  Therefore, this disc gives us an insight into medieval Christianity that is all but unique, and it’s cherishable if for nothing other than historical reasons.

It’s every bit as wonderful musically, though.  The polyphony is early, and so very modest, but the choir of La Capella Reial sing it with seriousness and disarming simplicity.  The ladies are particularly impressive, with some spine-tingling alto solos that are both devotional and sensuous in a combination that shouldn't work but really does.  Some of the numbers, such as Mariam matrem Virginem, are languid and wilting, expressing a particular kind of devotional piety.  Others, however, such as Stella splendens or Cuncti simus concanentes are lively roundels that really bring that mysterious aspect of the sacred dance to life.

Perhaps even more fascinating, however, are the contributions from the instrumentalists.  The musicians of Hespèrion XXI are an adventurous lot in any case, but they really go the extra mile here, playing a whole range of medieval instruments, most of whose names I didn’t even know!  (They’re listed in the booklet, but only in French.)  Still, you’d recognise the psaltery, the shawm, cornett, sackbut, oud, bagpipes, and all sorts of wind instruments I’m sure I've never seen before, as well as a fantastic array of percussion crowned by a delightfully delicate set of bells.  I found the effect utterly magical.  This is “authenticity” in its purest form, but it’s done for the best reasons: this is no academic exercise, but an attempt to make it speak to the listener’s heart.  For me, it’s triumphantly successful.

The disc is also very well curated.  In between the sung items are interspersed instrumental improvisations, each of which showcases one particular instrument in its glory, thus enabling the listener to get to know the range of timbres much better.  It also has the welcome effect of providing both variety and anticipation of what will be coming next.

The packaging is excellent, as we’ve come to expect from Savall’s Alia Vox recordings.  The booklet notes, as I’ve said, are excellent, and they also contain colour photos together with full sung texts and translations.  Wonderfully, the package contains both a hybrid SACD and a DVD of the concert.  The DVD is a special bonus because it lets you see the wonderful instruments as well as hear them, and it also lets you engage with the performers’ level of commitment.  The whole thing is packaged together in a lovely hardback book (red, of course!), which even has a ribbon bookmark sewn into it.

While its subject matter is very different, the Savall release this most put me in mind was his Granada disc of 2016, one of my records of last year.  It’s not only fantastic music, but it’s wonderfully educative, and I felt like an enriched, more enlightened person afterwards. What is art for, if not for that?

Simon Thompson

 

 




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