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"Christmas in Medieval England"

Blue Heron
Dir: Scott Metcalfe

rec: Dec 20 & 21, 2013 (live), Cambridge, Mass., First Church in Cambridge Congregational - BHCD1006 ( 2015) (71'27")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance]
[Advent] anon: Veni, veni, Emanuelbcefghij
[Annunciation] anon: Angelus ad virginemdk & Gabriel fram Heven-Kingaek; John DUNSTAPLE (c1390-1453): Gaude virgo salutata/Gaude virgo singularisbcefgh; anon: Hayl Mary, ful of gracebcefghk; Leonel POWER (?-1445): Gloria a 5fghij; anon: Ther is no rose of swych vertudeik; Leonel POWER: Ibo michi ad montem mirrecgh
[Christmas Eve] Sarum plainchant: Veni redemptor genciumbcefghij; [Christmas Day] Sarum plainchant: Dominus dixit ad mebcefghij; anon: Nowel: Owt of your slepe aryseacd; PYCARD (fl c1410-1420): Gloria a 3abcefgh; anon: Ecce, quod naturaaef; Missa Veterem hominem (Sanctus); Ave rex angelorumefj; Missa Veterem hominem (Agnus Dei); Nowel syng we bothe al and som; anon, arr Scott Metcalfe: Nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva

Pamela Dellala, Martin Nearb, Gerrod Pagenkopfc, Daniela Tosicd, cantus; Michael Barrette, Owen McIntoshf, Jason McStootsg, Mark Sprinkleh, contratenor, tenor; Paul Guttryi, David McFerrinj, bassus; Scott Metcalfe, harpk

From the first Sunday of Advent until the first Sunday of the New Year many concerts with music for Advent and Christmas (will) take place across the world. Every country has its own traditions and its own repertoire, but one can be sure that several pieces of English origin are or will be included. English carols are quite popular and many of them have been arranged in various ways. The present disc also includes some carols, although not of the kind which are performed in choral concerts.

One of the most familiar items opens the programme of this concert which was recorded in December 2013. Veni, veni, Emanuel is better known under the English title O come, o come Emmanuel. However, it is probably not of English origin but from France. As it is from the 13th century it is the oldest piece in the programme which is devoted to music from the first half of the 15th century. It is also the only piece for Advent. The next section is devoted to the Annunciation. Strictly speaking that is not part of the Christmas season: the feast of the Annunciation - the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus - is celebrated on 25 March. However, as Scott Metcalfe observes in his liner-notes, "the miracle is remembered and celebrated at the Christmas season" and that justifies the inclusion of pieces connected to the Annunciation. This section includes one of the best-known pieces in the programme, the carol Ther is no rose of swych vertu - in modern English: There is no rose of such virtue as is the rose that bore Jesus.

Today the carols are ranked among the more 'popular' part of the repertoire for Christmastide. However, as Metcalfe writes, they were not written for amateurs: most such pieces are found in sources with repertoire for professional singers and many include Latin texts mixed with phrases in the vernacular. That said, musically they are not that complicated. Polyphony is rare, they are mostly homophonic and strophic, and usually include a refrain. Many are largely or completely written on texts in the vernacular. The difference with the more sophisticated polyphony is particularly well exposed in the 'Annunciation' section. The carol Hayl Mary, ful of grace is preceded by Gaude virgo salutata/Gaude virgo singilaris, a four-part motet by John Dustaple in which the four voices all have their own text.

This motet is written for liturgical use and so are the mass sections included in the programme. Strictly speaking they have little to do with Christmastide, but Masses were obviously sung at every Sunday and feast day throughout the liturgical year. It was also common practice to add new texts to sections of the Mass, the so-called tropes. It is a little disappointing that this is not practiced here. The last section - music for Christmas Day - includes the Sanctus and Agnus Dei from the anonymous Missa Veterem hominem. Metcalfe writes that its Kyrie sets the trope Deus creator omnium which was sung on all principal and major double feasts, like Christmas, in the Sarum rite. It is a little odd, then, that this Kyrie is not performed here. The Sarum chant - plainchant which has its origin in the medieval cathedral of Salisbury - is also included in the programme: Veni redemptor gencium - the only piece here for Christmas Eve - and Dominus dixit ad me. In these pieces we hear the full ensemble with some phrases performed by a solo voice.

In other items we usually hear members of Blue Heron in various combinations. In the polyphonic pieces the upper parts are mostly taken by Martin Near and Gerrod Pagenkopf, and this results in good ensemble as the voices blend well. That is a bit different when the two female sopranos are involved. They act as soloists in some pieces and use quite some vibrato. That seems completely out of place in this kind of repertoire. It makes Angelus ad virginem, sung here in combination with Gabriel fram Heven-King, and Ther is no rose of swych vertu a little hard to swallow. Fortunately they keep it in check in those polyphonic pieces in which they participate. I also noted that the tempi are on the quiet side, sometimes even pretty slow. That is another aspect which dampened by enthusiasm. Moreover I find the acoustic rather unpleasantly dry: this music would come out considerably better in a venue with a little more reverberation.

The programme of this disc is certainly interesting and is a nice mixture of more or less familiar pieces and little-known compositions. However, there are just a couple of things which bother me and as a result I didn't enjoy this as much as I had hoped.

Johan van Veen ( 2015)

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