musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"El Cant de la and other sacred medieval works"

Musicaround Ensemble
Dir: Vera Marenco

rec: Nov 22 - 24, 2019, Ceranesi, Chiesa di San Lorenzo di Torbi
Dynamic - CDS7875 (© 2020) (65'04")
Liner-notes: E/IT; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

anon: Audi pontus, audi tellus; Audi tellus, audi magni maris limbus; Dies irae; Madre de Deus ora; Ordo Prophetarum - Benedicamus Domino; Splendidus regis thronus solaris/Leo bos et aquila regalis; Veni venia veniae trad: El Cant de la

During the four weeks of Advent, Christians do not only commemorate the prophecies of and preparations for the birth of Christ at the beginning of our era, but also look forward to his second coming, which goes along with the Last Judgement. The disc reviewed here brings together these two elements in a programme around El Cant de la Sibil·la (The Song of the Sibyl), whose lyrics are a prophecy describing the Apocalypse, and which has been performed since ancient times at the Balearic Islands.

The Sibyls were oracular women which in ancient Greece were believed to possess prophetic powers. The first author to mention a Sibyl was Heraclitus in the 5th century BC. In the course of time various authors referred to more Sibyls, up to ten, whose names referred to the shrine from which they spoke. In the Renaissance the number varies, and sometimes reaches twelve, as is the case in Lassus' Prophetiae Sibyllarum. The Sibyls were also the subject of paintings, for instance by Michelangelo. The Sibylline writings were given a Christian interpretation since the second century. They were believed to prophesy the coming of Christ. Although composers set texts by ancient writers without any Christian connotation, in this case the Christian interpretation was the incentive to set them to music.

The programme of this disc opens and closes with pieces connected to the Last Judgement. Audi tellus, audi magni maris limbus is a versus from the 10th century and written in Languedoc; it is preserved in the Bibliothèque musicipale of Montpellier. It comprises 24 verses of which the first five are performed here. It is an acrostic: each verse opens with a different letter of the alphabet. The first verse sets the tone: "Listen, earth, listen, edge of the vast sea; listen, man; you who live under the sun: the day of wrath is at hand (...)".

The next item is the longest. Ordo Prophetarum is a liturgical drama about the expectation of the birth of Christ. Several versions are known; here we get the only of the three that has been preserved complete with text and music, and is part of a 12th-century manuscript from the Aquitaine monastery of Saint-Martial in Limoges. The central figure is the praecentor, which can be compared to the historicus in the oratorios of Giacomo Carissimi and the Evangelist in German Passions. He begins by saying: "Let all peoples, united and exultant, sing a joyful song. On this day, from the line of David, God was born, he made himself man". The rest of the piece is an attempt to convince the Jews that the Word of God was made flesh. To that end a number of "men of the law" - meaning figures from the Old Testament - are interrogated as "supreme witnesses of the King". Those are Moses, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and Habakkuk, and King David. Then follow - from the New Testament - John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth. The last witnesses are Nebuchadnezzar (the King of Babylon, who deported the Israeli people), the antique author Virgil and a Sibyl. Virgil is the one who, in the fourth eclogue of his Bucolics, mentions a prophecy of the Cumaean Sibyl that speaks of a time of peace, which would be inaugurated by the advent of a virgin and of the child she would give birth to. This was interpreted as a prophecy of the birth of Christ. In order to emphasize the liturgical function of this drama, it is followed by a setting of the chant Benedicamus Domino from the Huelgas Codex.

The Sibyl, who is the last witness in the drama, is the connection to the ensuing piece, El Cant de la Sibil·la, which is in Catalan, and opens with the words "On Judgement Day those who have served well will shine". This is a refrain which is repeated after each of the thirteen verses. These are sung by a solo voice, whereas the refrain is performed by a chorus.

After Veni venia veniae, a conductus-motet from the Huelgas Codex, which is performed instrumentally, we hear a conductus from the same manuscript: Audi pontus, audi tellus, which is another wake-up call: "Listen, man (...): it is near, it is coming". It includes a warning: "Alas, you wretch! Why do you seek inconsiderate pleasure, man?" It makes sense that it is followed by one of the Cantigas de Santa Maria from the 13th century. Madre de Deus is a prayer to Mary: "Mother of God, intercede with your son on our behalf in that hour". After another motet from the Huelgas Codex, performed instrumentally, the disc closes with the Dies irae.

Each year a number of discs are released with music for Christmastide. The present disc is quite different from most productions in that it focuses on an aspect of Advent that is not very well-known and that most people probably don't like to hear at a time that is treated as a family event. However, liturgically there is a long tradition of connecting Advent with the sins of mankind and the Apocalypse. It has always been a time of repentance, and that is the reason that, for instance, Bach did not write any cantatas for the Sundays between the first of Advent and Christmas since he became Thomaskantor in Leipzig. That makes this disc a meaningful alternative to what is offered for the end of the year. The performances are very good: the singing and playing do full justice to the repertoire and its meaning. Eugenia Amisano deserves praise for her performance of the part of the Sibyl.

However, there are some issues with regard to the interpretation, and that concerns mainly the liberties that are taken in the Ordo Prophetarum. The conductor, Vera Marenco, added instruments, which obviously are not required. That does not exclude the possibility that they have been used; this is a recurring issue in the performance of medieval music, as we see in the different performances of, for instance, the chants by Hildegard of Bingen. However, considering the liturgical function of this piece it seems rather unlikely, and that goes especially for the instrumental interludes. What is more problematic, though, is the decision to perform the part of the praecentor with a choir rather than a solo voice. "[It] is the people, the voice of humanity asking - and asking themselves - what their destiny will be at the end of times". This seems a mistake: the dialogue between the praecentor and the witnesses has the character of an interrogation, which is damaged by this approach. However, the oddest feature of this disc may well be the fact that for the performance of the Dies irae the version of the Graduale Romanum of 1908 was taken. It must have been possible to find a version that is closer to the repertoire performed on this disc.

That said, those who would like to add something different to their collection of music for Christmastide should investigate this disc, which can also be listened to at other times of the year. After all, it is always time for repentance.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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