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KASSIANÍ (KASSÍA) (ca. 810-ca. 865)
Cappella Romana/Alexander Lingas (music director and founder)
rec. 13-17 January 2020, The Madeleine Parish, Portland, Oregon,

The true identity of the Byzantine abbess, poet and composer Kassianí, or Kassía, is still open to debate, but she is one of the first medieval composers whose scores have survived and are available for interpretation by musicians today. The booklet for this release tells us that, in Greek folklore, she was “a glamorous court figure who, when jilted by the Emperor for her audacity, retreated to the monastery where she wrote her heartrending lament. Still pining for her beauty, Theophilos is said to have snuck into her convent one day, causing Kassianí to flee from her cell. Upon finding at her desk the incomplete penitential hymn ‘On the Sinful Woman’, Theophilos supposedly glossed its reference to the feet of Christ by adding the phrase ‘whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise, and hid herself in fear.’”

Kassía, as she probably called herself, was an outstanding member of a small group of women known to have written and edited texts and music for Byzantine worship. Her accomplishments as a composer and devoted Christian have inevitably led to comparisons with Hildegard von Bingen. While Hildegard’s later medieval style has more extrovertly lyrical melodic shaping, there will certainly be enthusiasts that will find much to appreciate in this substantial recording of Kassianí’s music.

These Byzantine hymns are mostly monodic or unison melodies, at times sung over drones or in fact harmonising bass parts that form cadences at the ends of phrases. The scales used are largely diatonic, though you will notice certain tones being flattened at times, emphasising the music’s Eastern feel. The extensive booklet notes for this release go into detail about each hymn, and the sung texts are all printed in Greek with English translations. Cappella Romana is a leading vocal ensemble that is best known for its performances of Byzantine chant, and you have the feeling that you are in safe hands in the way they bring Kassianí’s ancient manuscripts to life - some fragments of which are reproduced in the booklet.

There are a few recordings of Kassianí’s music to be found elsewhere, including another by Cappella Romana on the Naxos label, ‘Choral Settings of Kassianí’ cat. 9.70039 which is download only. This explores modern composers’ responses to Kassianí and is a nicely complementary recording to this Cappella Records release. Hunting around for alternatives I came across Ensemble Cherubika which has recorded Kassianí, singing in English. This takes quite some getting used to, and there are some weird and wonderful things to be found in Kassianí’s name as there are these days with Hildegard von Bingen (Editor - there is also a release on the Christophorus label by VocaMe - CHR77308).

Cappella Romana sings with a weighty devotional passion which, while avoiding histrionics, prevents this listening experience from becoming passive meditation. This spaciously recorded SACD disc is refreshingly free of pretensions and special effects and, as far as I can tell, is the current reference for this rather special repertoire.

Dominy Clements

Lamplighting Psalms, excerpt, “Lord, I have cried…” [5:32]
Stíchera Prosómoia Kassía [10:11]
Other Prosómoia Kassía [6:53]
Doxastikón of Great Vespers of Christmas Day, “When Augustus reigned” [4:51]
Hymns from the Triodion and Holy Week
Idiómelon from Great Vespers on the Eve of the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee
“Almighty Lord, I know how powerful tears are” [3:17]
Tetraō´dion for Great and Holy Saturday, Odes 1 and 3 [5:38]
Idiómelon from Matins for the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican
“... by boasting of his works” [3:06]
Tetraō´dion for Great and Holy Saturday, Odes 4 and 5 [6:04]
From Great and Holy Wednesday at Matins
“Lord, the woman found in many sins” [8:07]
Kalophonic Stícheron “Lord, the woman found in many sins” [25:54]

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