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Learning about Gregorian chant
Solesmes Abbey of St. Pierre Choir, Dom Jean Claire, Sarah Moule (spoken voice)
rec. 1995-2001(?), France.
SOLESMES S.843 [61:07]

This CD is a little disappointing. From its title one would hope for a detailed and perhaps comprehensive (or at least new) resource for those who want to find out more about the splendours of Gregorian Chant than is often presented (sadly) just for effect. Gregorian Chant, of course, is the unaccompanied monophonic choral music which developed in the Ninth and Tenth centuries mainly in west and central Europe and continued to be used liturgically long afterwards.

At the forefront of those who, in the latter part of the 19th century, led a revival of interest in plainchant were the monks and scholars of Solesmes (a Benedictine order in Sarthe, France). When it became possible to record and distribute performances of Gregorian chant, the monks of Solesmes did so, having now several dozen (sets of) CDs in their discography.

This collection is taken from half a dozen of these earlier CDs:
S.821 Christmas
S.822 Easter
S.823 Requiem Mass
S.824 Feasts of Our Lady
S.826 Vespers and Compline
S.831 Maundy Thursday

Although nowhere online or in the slim four-page ‘documentation’ which passes for sleeve notes for the CD is there a real indication of which corresponds to which (only 15 notations are provided – with some ambiguity – for 19 items).

The sung chants are presented under four headings: The History of Gregorian Chant; The Gregorian Musical Forms – ‘Proper of the Mass; Ordinary of the Mass; Divine Office and a Conclusion - each with from one to five chants of between just over one and a half and just over five minutes. This is decidedly a ‘presentation’, not a recital for Moule’s commentary is routinely recorded as the music fades in or out.

The singers are superb, of course; the control of breath, especially in the longer lines, and the phrasing impressive. Their articulation is, of course, of that of French Latin with it’s pinched ‘ü’. But they sing with a confidence and authority that cries out for something more expansive. Nor does a succession of short snippets really do musical justice to what’s available.

What is spoken is clear, relevant and informative. It takes a historical approach starting with the origins of chant in the sixth century and explaining when, how, and why chant developed. This commentary also includes a resumé of the work after the French Revolution of the Solesmes monks’ own work, as alluded to above.

For someone completely new to chant this could be marginally useful. But there are many (scholarly and popular) books which cover the material well. Willi Appel’s Gregorian Chant (ISBN-13: 978-0253206015) is a respected and approachable classic.

So, although the beautiful music is sung beautifully by those who can justly be credited in large part with the revival of Gregorian Chant, and although the spoken commentary is clear and relevant, this CD can hardly be claimed as much more than a superficial introduction to the music. Some of the most effective and persuasive recordings of Gregorian Chant allow the long, melismatic, lines to develop without interruption, and with an elegance and grace that can only emerge in tandem with reflection… and silence.

The acoustic of the spoken commentary is clear, if a little boxy, with a short delay which almost sounds like a very short echo. That of the sung/chanted portions equally so. But for a CD with the title ‘Learning about Gregorian Chant, a huge opportunity has been missed for printed material that could have supported the CD itself. All that’s included is a rather nondescript photograph on the cover, background to the work of the Solesmes monks and their recording business, four short testimonials for the wider project, and a list of CDs with UPC numbers etc.

Had this been a detailed DVD drawing on the admittedly wonderful standard recordings of the corpus of Gregorian Chant as originally researched, preserved and presented over many decades by these same monks, with supporting text, images and examples, it would have been possible to recommend it.

Mark Sealey

ANONYMOUS (Mediaeval)
The History of Gregorian Chant
Gloria II [3:50]
Ambrosian Gloria [4:40]
Antiphon, In mandatis and Psalm 111 [2:28]
Psalm 100 [3:58]
Psalm 111 [2:50]
The Gregorian Musical Forms - Proper of the Mass
Introit Nos Autem [5:04]
Gradual Concupivit [4:01]
Alleluia Pascha nostrum [3:00]
Offertory Lætentur [3:16]
Communion Pascha nostrum [3:54]
Ordinary of the Mass
Kyrie III [4:47]
Gloria IX [4:52]
Sanctus XVIII [1:40]
Agnus Dei XVIII [1:47]
Divine Office
Antiphon Dixit Dominus and Psalm 109 [3:33]
Antiphon Si offers and Magnificat [2:01]
Response Credo [4:06]
Hymn Lucis Creator [4:13]
Hymn Salve festa dies [3:09]

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