More Gardiner than Renaissance, but nonetheless undeniably
Maddy Evil | London, UK | 01/22/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"In his first non-Bach recording for the Monteverdi Choir's own 'Soli deo gloria' label, John Eliot Gardiner presents a sublime programme of works from the 12th-16th centuries inspired by the renowned Santiago pilgrim route. If the CD does not quite surpass the Monteverdi Choir's 2005 recording of similar music (Santiago A Cappella, Universal/Emarcy 0028947630104), it is still by any account a magnificent achievement. The performances exhibit both impeccable ensemble and near-faultless intonation, and are beautifully encaptured within a warm acoustic. In addition, Gardiner frequently exploits a slow 'tactus' to great effect, resulting in readings which are spiritually charged and spacious (perhaps most obviously in Morales' ubiquitous 'Parce mihi Domine', Mouton's 'Nesciens mater' and Clemens 'O Maria vernans rosa').
If there can be any criticism of the disc, it is that, at times, the towering force of Gardiner's musical personality is perhaps a little too dominant. In his defence, Gardiner makes no pretence that this is anything but a highly idiosyncratic account, a fact which is obvious both in the performances themselves and in the CD's presentation (note the cover and the booklet, which features personal reflections from himself [pp.1-2] and members of the choir [pp.34-5]). One could argue, however, that the music recorded here is good enough in itself without the need for such "dressing". A number of the interpretations, for example, rely on a rhetorical approach to dynamics and tempo which is arguably more appropriate to late 16th/early 17th century secular music than 'prima prattica' (and earlier) sacred music, and whilst this musicological liberty is often effective, sometimes it is not. The declamatory 'forte' outbursts in Dufay's 'Rite majorem' are indicative of such an over-emphasis on text; similarly, the slightly jerky tempo in Victoria's motet 'O quam gloriosum' sounds rather mannered in places, and seems to contradict what is known about tempo in Renaissance music (see below *1). Also, regarding the medieval pieces, it is worth pointing out that 'Congaudeant catholici' was almost certainly a 2-voice conductus-motet, not the 3-part piece which is presented here (see below *2). Finally, the choice of forces (see below *3) and some occasional mannerisms (such as the clipped 'Hosanna' in the Sanctus and Benedictus of Victoria's Mass) clearly betray the mixed-voice Cambridge choral tradition of Rutter, Marlow and Brown (n.b. Gardiner himself studied there, of course). Incidentally, why is the Credo from Victoria's Mass silently omitted...?!
If the overall result, then, is really more a of personal invitation to Gardiner's insight than an attempt to give an accurate representation of the selected works, this does not detract from the profound and ethereal experience which is created upon listening to this marvellous release. Highly recommended.
*1 - It would be dangerous to interpret sources too literally, but it surely significant that contemporary theorists almost consistently relate the tactus to mediums with a regular factor, most commonly the heartbeat (e.g. Ramis de Pareia , Adam of Fulda , etc...), but also breathing (Gaffurius, 1496), walking (Buchner c.1520), etc.
*2 - The "3rd" part is a noticeably later addition to the manuscript (Codex Calixtinus), lacking its own staff and lying in between the 2 outer voices; it was probably intended as an alternative second voice rather than a true third part.
*3 - Performance of Iberian polyphony with instruments - rather than 'a cappella' (as here) - is well documented, and Santiago Cathedral itself boasted 4 salaried ministriles from 1539. In Rome too, where Victoria's Mass was published (1583), instrumental participation was common. The English jesuit Gregory Martin, describing music in Roman churches c.1576-8, for example, notes: "...with the Organs a childes voice shriller and louder than the instrument, tuneable with every pipe: Among the quyre, Cornet or Sagbut, or such like above the voices..." (Roma Sancta, 1581, p.96)"
John Eliot Should Have Known Better
Giordano Bruno | Wherever I am, I am. | 12/04/2007
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Not all pre-classical music should sound the same! Not all pilgrimages tread the same paths. The performance of Medieval music requires specific techniques - unique voice timbres as well as unique instruments - and it's as much a travesty to sing the troped chants from the Codex Calixtinus like Bach Chorales as it is to perform the Goldberg Variations on a Hammond organ. The tempi Gardiner takes for many of the pieces on this CD are ridiculously slow, and the chorus makes no effort to sing in the modal tunings required to recapture the energy of this music. Apply your ears to the amazon samples of "congaudeant catholici" on the CDs by Sequentia (Sons of Thunder) or Anonymous Four (San'tiago) if you want to confirm or refute my opinion.
Likewise, Gardiner's selections here, and his ruminations on pilgrimage, are rampant self-indulgence. Lumping Aquitanian polyphony and Palestrina together serves no musical purpose. Chronologically, one might as well snip arias from Monteverdi and Verdi, and potch them together all in the same style. It seems as if Gardiner is merely attempting to tap into the craving of our times for spiritualized music. All of us who love Bach, Ockeghem, Perotin, or anonymous chant have to confront the religious content of that music on our own terms, but we needn't sacrifice musical values to do it. The bottom line is that I don't think these performances are up to snuff. None of them will bear comparison with recordings of the same pieces by other ensembles more focused the Renaissance and Medieval performance practices."
Transcendant spiritual beauty
Steven Eldredge | New York, NY USA | 05/19/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"After arriving at the end of this astonishing CD, any critical objectivity was swept away by the sheer transcendent quality of these performances. One need not be religious to understand something out of the ordinary is happening here. This was recorded in London in between performances in France and Spain where the choir hiked from town to town and performed the program in abbeys and churches, ending with a performance in the Cathedral of Santiago de Campostela.Surely the memories of those churches, their extraordinary spiritual qualities and acoustics, remained in the singer's ears and hearts during this recording session. So much of it is so beautiful, with the motet 'O Maria vernans rosa' by Clemens non papa being for me the highlight. It is hard to imagine anything more transcendant than the soaring treble lines and prismatic harmonies in that music.All that is missing are the candles and the incense. Glorious!"