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Gregorian Chant - World Famous Recordings
Choir of the Carmelite Priory, London/John McCarthy
Benedictine Monks of the Abbey of Saint-Maurice & Saint-Maur, Clervaux, Luxembourg
rec. 1959, 1961
Originally released on L’Oiseau-Lyre/Decca and Philips ADD

Hundreds of recordings are available of Gregorian chant - the corpus of unaccompanied liturgical solo and choral music whose origins date from the first millennium after Christ. The revival of interest in, and performance of, ‘plainchant’ began in the nineteenth century and gathered pace in the twentieth, largely thanks to research undertaken and editions prepared by members of several monastic orders themselves.

This generous CD from Alto (a label of Musical Concepts) features the clear, dedicated, persuasive singing of two such monastic choirs: the Carmelite Priory in Kensington, London and the Abbey of Saint-Maurice & Saint-Maur, Clervaux, Luxembourg. Their styles are quite different and reflect the contrasting traditions in which each developed.

The former is directed with enthusiastic professionalism and gravitas by John McCarthy (1916 - 2009), the founder, with Denis Stevens, of the Ambrosian Singers and later chorus master of the LSO and Royal Opera House; McCarthy also served as the Director of Music at the Carmelite Priory itself.

From the opening of the first item on this warm, inviting and authoritatively conceived and produced CD, it is obvious why the ‘subtitle’, World Famous Recordings, is appropriate. The singers (female voices are also used; they work well) approach music which began as expressions of devotion, love, dedication by and for the faithful - in some cases over 1,500 years ago - without the slightest hint of any need to ‘present’ or ‘advocate’ the music. It is not quite as though we are ‘overhearing’ them sing, but our presence is almost secondary as we attend to their sense of purpose and direction. This permeates the music with golden reality and the choristers’ quiet belief in how far from the past to the present such music can extend… for once ‘timeless’ is a good word.

Roughly half of the CD is given to each choir, the first half to the Carmelite choir. It consists mainly of Responsories: choral ‘interjections’ sung between the verses of (spoken) psalms, and antiphons: a development of psalms where two groups sang alternating verses.

Then come four Marian Antiphons [tr.10], which are not strictly antiphons because their texts are not taken from the Psalms. They date from the 11th century and are to be sung in praise of the Virgin Mary, usually during the evening or night-time Compline service.

This selection is varied. It is probably presented here in this order so as to reinforce our understanding of just how large the repertoire of Gregorian chant was. It offers an easily-grasped structure. We make progress through the music when listening closely to the alternation of solo and ensemble unharmonised chant. Examples of single and multiple voices follow one another. Such turns of melodic and textural simplicity and sophistication do much to suggest the power of song when offered in worship. This is sparingly emphasised by judicious changes in tempo - as at the very end of the Gospel Tone [tr.4].

The Clervaux half is presented after the Carmelites, which aids in conferring clarity and concentration on the entire sequence. The Clervaux style is different, though. There is organ accompaniment and the atmospheric sounds of monastery bells. The pronunciation of the Latin text, as would be expected, is a French one with the familiar “ sound. This portion of the CD aims to show another side of Gregorian chant: choral music which originated in the hymns themselves, as heard during the services. Here the melodic lines are generally built on the regular metres of the verses.

The CD also offers music which comes from a huge range in time: the Te Deum [tr.14] is thought to have been first written down in the fifth century; while the Adore te [tr.11] and O Salutaris [tr.13] are Eucharistic hymns for the Feast of Corpus Christi with texts by St Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1225 to 1274, fully seven hundred years later. Although the Clervaux choristers never draw attention to the point, still less labour it, we should surely marvel at the longevity of the musical tradition, which - while developing – has retained its confessional core and senses of purpose.

This sense of devotion and sacred intensity is made all the more striking by its gentleness and humility - in contrast with all-too-many of the popularised and over-commercialised recordings that have become available as plainchant has grown in popularity since, say, the 1980s. Such restraint makes this collection one to be sought out without hesitation: drama takes second place to transparency in vocal and choral delivery; rhetoric happily yields to accuracy; declamation retires in favour of purity of colour. What’s more, the CD is very attractively priced. Yes, at times relaxed vibrato indicates that these are recordings made over 60 years ago, but they are as fresh and convincing in their balance of restraint and focus as any choir would achieve today.

The acoustics of the recordings are - as you would expect, given their age - a little boxy and lacking in depth, but there is no scratchiness or noticeably reduced range in the singing. The original sources have been expertly re-mastered digitally (the release’s SPARS code is ADD) by Alto’s Paul Arden-Taylor.

Because this music may well be new and unfamiliar in form to many listeners, a longer accompanying text than the two and a half sides in the CD’s accompanying leaflet would have been welcome. There are a few misspellings (Mariam [sic] for Marian); the dates given for the Council of Trent (‘1562-63’) refer only to the last nine sessions under Pius IV. Nevertheless, this is a highly enjoyable collection typical of how chant was performed over half a century ago. It makes both a welcome addition to anyone who already loves Gregorian chant and a stable and intriguing introduction to anyone new to it.

Mark Sealey

Responsories [12:49]
Hymns [8:23]
Antiphons [3:10]
Gospel Tone [1:25]
Laudes Seu Acclamationes [3:02]
Gradual: Flores Apparuerunt [2:50]
Alleluia • Communions [6:34]
Antiphon • Ave Verum [3:59]
Antiphonal Psalmody • Lumen Ad Revelationem • Nunc Dimittis [2:20]
Marian Antiphons • Alma Redemptoris • Ave Regina Caelorum • Regina Caeli-Salve Regina [6:09]
Adoro te devote • Hymnus in Honorem SS. Sacramenti [4:15]
Ave verum Corpus • Sequentia in Honorem SS. Sacramenti [1:33]
O salutaris Hostia • Hymnus in Honorem SS. Sacramenti [1:20]
Te Deum • Hymnus [5:54]
Salve Regina - Antiphona in Honorem Beatae Mariae Virgini [2:48]
Magnificat • Tu es pastor ovium • Canticum et Antiphona [3:36]
Lauda Sion:Nunc dimittis • Sequentia in Festo Corporis Christi [6:48]

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