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"Hodie Christus natus est - A Medieval Christmas"

The Boston Camerata
Dir: Anne Azéma

rec: July 2021, Chestnut Hill, MA, St Ignatius of Loyola Church
Harmonia mundi - HMM 905339 (© 2021) (58'14")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance]
[Hodie!] plainchant: Hodie Christus natus est; anon: Uterus hodie Virginis floruit
[Sponsus] anon: Sponsus, miracle play (Adest Sponsus; Olet virgines; Nos virgines; Amen dico)
[Lux!] anon: Verbum patris humanatur, O!; plainchant: Judea et Jerusalem; Dominus veniet; anon: Lux refulget
[Flur de virginité] anon: Clara sonent organa; Gedeonis area; Flur de virginité, sur le chant d'Aélis; Veine pleine de duçur; Edi be thu hevene quene
[Nolite timere] anon: Angelis ad Virginem; Dal ciel venne messo novello; plainchant: Nolite timere; anon: English Dance; plainchant: Quem vidistis pastores?; anon: Sancta Maria graciae - Dou way, Robin; Campanis cum cymbalis/Honoremus Dominam
[Benedicat Domino] anon: Por nos Virgen madre; Gregis pastor

Camila Parias, Deborah Rentz-Moore, voice; Anne Azéma, voice, hurdy-gurdy, bells; Christa Patton, winds, harp; Shira Kammen, vielle, rebec, harp

As Christmas is one of the highlights of the year in the Christian world, there is a large repertoire of music connected to this season, from simple folk music to sophisticated oratorios of the great composers. The disc under review here is one of many that Boston Camerata recorded in the course of its history. The ensemble mainly focuses on music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, although it also has recorded American music of much later periods. The disc under review here has its roots in a recording from the 1970s, whose programme has since then been changed, extended, and brought up to date. It is not the only programme with Christmas music that the ensemble has produced and performed. In my collection I have an Erato disc from 1990, called "Noël, Noël!", which includes music from France, written between 1200 and 1600. The latest disc rather focuses on the Middle Ages, and includes mainly pieces from France and England.

Anne Azéma, in her liner-notes, points out that there was much variety in Christmas repertoire across Europe during the Middle Ages. This concerns the subject matter, the character of the music and the language of the lyrics. That is amply demonstrated here. The programme includes five pieces of plainchant, which has been the core of sacred music for many centuries. Gregorian melodies have been included in many compositions and have inspired many composers. Here they are the thread through a programme which has been divided into six chapters which deal with the various aspects of Christmas music.

The programme opens with two pieces under the title of "Hodie!" After a piece of plainchant ("Today Christ is born") we hear Uterus hodie Virginis floruit ("Today the belly of the Virgin has flourished"), a song from Aquitania, which is about the birth of Christ, with references to the past ("spoken of in the writings of David") and to the future ("brings both natures to the Cross"). The next chapter is called "Sponsus", and includes four excerpts from a miracle play with that title, written in Aquitania in the 11th century. It is about the image of Christ as the bridegroom, and it includes a reference to Jesus's parable of the wise and the foolish virgins. This chapter represents a particular element of the coming of Christ: that he comes as a judge. It ends with Christ's reply to the foolish virgins: "Amen I say, I know you not".

The third chapter ("Lux") is about the image of Christ as the light of the world. Two Gregorian chants are embraced by Latin songs from Aquitania. The last sums up the tenor of this chapter: "The light shines forth from above; here is the day that the prophets foretold" (Lux refulget).

Mary takes a central place in the story of Christ's birth, and the growing veneration of Mary during the Middle Ages is reflected by the number of pieces about her. This explains the fourth chapter: "Flur de Virginité" (flower of viriginity), the title of an anonymous French song from the 13th century. The chapter ends with two pieces from 13th-century England. Edi be thu hevene quene is the best-known piece in the programme, but performed here in a way that is probably rather unusual. The swift tempo makes it sound like a dance song.

The fifth chapter is called "Nolite timere", the opening words of the Gregorian chant included in it: "Fear not". Those are the words with which the angels approach human beings, when they announce the (expected) birth of Christ. The first two pieces are about the angel Gabriel's message to Mary. The English carol is played, and then we get a piece from 14th century Italy. Quem vidistis pastores, another Gregorian chant, is a text which has been set by many composers during the Renaissance. Sancta Mater gracie could also have been included in the previous chapter, as Mary is addressed as "royal flower". We find here the traces of the Catholic doctrine of Mary as mediator between the faithful and Christ: "Restore thy children, brought low by vice, to the Son". This song also includes a reference to Christ's suffering at the Cross. In the last item, an English carol of the 14th century, two texts are sung simultaneously, praising the Lord in one, and Mary in the other.

The disc ends with two pieces under the title of "Benedicat Domino", probably a reference to the "Benedicamus Domino" as part of the concluding sentences of each of the office hours. It opens with one of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, in which Mary is asked: "For us (...) pray to God your Father and Son and friend". The last piece is then an example of a song in which the sacred and the secular are mingled: "Tyrus, shepherd of the Rock, herds asses too; he is a shepherd and an ass himself". The refrain says: "Yo, yo, ho! Tityrus has invited us to a rich feast". Santa Claus is not far away here.

It brings to a close a most delightful disc, whose programme is indeed, as Anne Azéma promised, a wide variety of styles and texts. It is one of the reasons why this recording is interesting and captivating. As this disc takes less than an hour, at the end I was thinking: "Please, ma'am, can I have some more?" That is also due to the performances. The singing and playing is excellent. The excerpts from the miracle play Sponsus are among the highlights and make curious for the entire piece. I already noted the unusual style of performance of Edi be thu hevene quene. The fast tempo works rather well, and makes this piece even more exciting than it is in itself. Obviously, the vocal part of this recording is the most important, but I would like to express my admiration for the instrumental contributions as well. How flamboyant comes off the English dance under the hands of Shira Kammen!

This disc makes for great company during the last weeks of the year.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

The Boston Camerata

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