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Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia
Medieval Byzantine Chant sung in the virtual acoustics of Hagia Sophia
Cappella Romana/Alexander Lingas
Documentary film: ‘The Voice of Hagia Sophia [23:43]
rec. 2016, Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), Stanford, USA
Texts and English translations included
Audio options: 2.0 LPCM Stereo 24bit/48kHz; 5.1 DTS-HD MA24bit/48kHz; Dolby ATMOS 24/48kHz; Audio-3D 24/48kHz
CAPPELLA ROMANA CR420 [CD: 76:50 & Blu-ray: 80 mins]

In 395AD the Roman Empire effectively split into two: the Latin West and the Greek East. The latter was centred, of course, in Constantinople, where the building of the magnificent Hagia Sophia (‘Holy Wisdom’) basilica was completed in 537. Less than a thousand years later (when Constantinople had become Byzantium… it is now Istanbul, of course) the Hagia Sophia was converted into an Ottoman mosque. In July 2020 it reverted to such - after serving as a secular museum since 1935. There can thus be few extant buildings in the world with as rich and continuous a tradition of purpose, worship and indeed of music as the Hagia Sophia. For at least a millennium the building also had the largest domed interior of any in the world.

This CD, which comes bundled with a Blu-ray (™) disc, offers a collection of music from the Byzantine period of the Hagia Sophia: the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. These chants are performed by Cappella Romana, which was formed in 1991 to specialise in early Christian music, and contemporary vocal and choral compositions. Cappella Romana’s dozen or so performers, led by founder-director Alexander Lingas, are based in Portland, Oregon, in the United States.

The music was recorded at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University, California. Yet what makes it special is its producers’ explicit aim to present this lovely music as it might well have sounded in the Middle Ages in the Hagia Sophia itself.

This is achieved not only by adherence to scrupulous musicological scholarship; but also by digitally capturing/recreating the acoustic of the Hagia Sophia. Cappella Romana’s engineers separately reproduced the building’s actual sound by measuring and analysing sonic impulse-response waveforms - including its long reverberation - and then independently ‘mapping’ the building’s acoustic characteristics as realistically as possible onto the vocal/choral ensemble’s studio performances.

That reverberation can last over 11 seconds - as can be heard particularly clearly at the end of the initial entrance antiphon [tr.1] and, indeed, at the ending of several of the tracks. A sense of how well and naturally this succeeds can be gained from the extracts available on Cappella Romana’s website.

The acoustic is thus an ‘instrument’ in its own right. That is doubly true: for doctrinal reasons spirit is to be seen as the essence of religious devotion (Holy Spirit). And linguistically ‘spirit’ is the enhanced sense of the human voice as inhalation (pneuma in Greek) when singing: breath needs to be drawn in, or inspired.

This emphasis on acoustic and its relationship with the music could easily have been overdone. A vague sense of atmosphere could easily have stood in for substance; impressionistic presentation taken the place of musical drive. Cappella Romana never comes close to such indiscretions. From the first note, we hear dedication, focus, energy, a balanced and measured concentration on - as far as is possible in our noisy world - how the monks and lay staff of the Hagia Sophia would surely have gone about their worship. Just as pleasingly, these performances gently also suggest why they did so. Cappella Romana’s understanding of - and dedication to - the idiom sees to that.

The vocal and choral declamation is metrical and for the most part monophonic with drone and polyphonic support. The singers’ emphasis is on the text: rightly there is restraint rather than spurious rhetoric. Melodic lines are clear but made to bend towards their devotional purposes. Nothing, though, in these chants is even remotely mechanical or perfunctory. Rather, Cappella Romana conveys the energy which must have imbued these ceremonies in Christianity’s first millennium in Europe with celebration, confidence and joy. Not dogma or rote. Nor a routine accompaniment to echo and incense.

The forward and dedicated style of Cappella Romana stops short of relying on the potential which impassioned music can have to virtually grab you by the throat (think of many a novice Straussian soprano) to demand your attention. But somehow you can’t help being drawn in and captivated. This is surely due to the ensemble’s awareness of and delight in the music’s architecture… rises and falls; climaxes and relaxation; leading and pausing.

Listen as closely as this music - probably new to many - ‘unfolds’ and you will detect few abrupt modulations in dynamic or tempo. The interior of the Hagia Sophia has much architectural variety. But it is in aid of a stunning whole. So it is with this music, which is sung with unity and integrity.

This is a refreshing approach and one which works well. Listen, for instance, to the almost exultant Ode of the Canon of the Precious Cross [tr.5]. The repetition is never an end in itself for these singers, nor a device. It seems an essential way of inviting us as participants or listeners to understand that for (early) Christians the Cross was self-evidently something with which to be spiritually involved - rather than for (our) passive adoration. By their insistence, the singers of Cappella Romana are intimating (to us) that such relics ‘demand’ our attention by themselves. And that the singers are committed conduits.

The 40-page booklet that comes with the CD/Blu-ray goes into details of the motivation for the project; the confessional background in the period; why the disposition of acoustical elements was (and is) so important liturgically; the wider involvement of Cappella Romana; the chants themselves and their places in the liturgy; the technicalities of the acoustic’s reproduction; bibliographies; sources; and full texts in Greek with English translations (though not transliterations).

By itself this wonderful music makes extremely appealing listening. There’s variety - of ‘personnel’, timbre and texture; contrasts in what the music is intended to illuminate or instruct; and a pleasing alternation of impact. Although not performed in the ‘earthy’ style of Ensemble Organum (which, with its director Marcel Pérès, has made such music its own), Cappella Romana’s approach (repeatedly described as ‘passionate’ in their publicity material) is authentic, enthusiastic, dedicated and precise. It does ample justice to the assured, but paradoxically subdued, urgency of this Eastern counterpart of Gregorian Chant. At the same time the singing is spontaneous. Nor is it restrained by what must be twenty-first century conceptions of a ‘performance’ idiom over 1,500 years earlier.

If you’ve never heard anything like this before, try Lost Voices of the Hagia Sophia; the CD is generous, and well-produced with sound musical premises. It is highly likely to make you at least think seriously about searching out similar music.

Mark Sealey
Previous review: John Quinn

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Constantinople
From the Office of Sung Vespers
1.Final (Teleutaion) Antiphon before the Entrance [5:13]
(Ps. 98:9), Mode Plagal 2
2.Psalm 140 with Refrain (Kekragarion) [7:04]
From the Office of Sung Matins
Antiphon 7
3. Small litany and Old Kalophonic Antiphon, Mode Plagal 4. [9:31]
4. Choral stichologia (selected verses of Ps. 109–112, “Palaion”) [3:21]
5. Ode 4 of the Canon of the Precious Cross. [6:39]
From the Ceremony of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Troparion: “Lord, save your people”
6. Syllabic melody [1:09]
7. Asmatikon melody [4:23]
8. Kontakion: “Lifted Up on the Cross,” short melody, Mode 4 [2:11]
9. Sticheron, for the Adoration of the Cross [6:02]
by Emperor Leo VI “The Wise”: “Come believers, let us worship the Life-giving Cross,” Mode 2
Selections from the Divine Liturgy
10. Troparion instead of the Trisagion “Your Cross we Worship” [12:57]
11. Prokeimenon: (Gradual, Ps. 98:9, 1-2), Barys Mode [5:23]
12. Asmatikon Cherubic Hymn [12:55]
On Blu-ray disc only
13. Communion Verse, “The Light of your Countenance,” Mode 4 [3:35]
Film, ‘The Voice of Hagia Sophia’ [23:43]
Directed, Edited, and Co-produced by Duygu Eruçman; Produced by Bissera V. Pentcheva
Cinematography by Meryem Yavuz, Michael Seely, and Ben Wu

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