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"A Scottish Lady Mass - Sacred Music from Medieval St Andrews"

Red Byrd, Yorvox

rec: April 21 - 22, 2001 & May 29, 2004, Holborn (London), St Alban's Church
Hyperion - CDA67299 (© 2005) (66'05")

Introit: Gaudeamus omnes - Kyrie: Rex, virginum amator - Gloria Per precem - Gradual: Proptem veritatem - Alleluya: Ave Maria gratia plena - Alleluya: Virga florem germinavit - Sequence: Missus Gabriel de celis - Sequence: Hodierne lux diei - Offertory: O vere beata sublimis - Sanctus Mater mitis - Sanctus Christe ierarchia - Sanctus Voce vita - Agnus Dei Archetipi mundi - Agnus Dei Factus homo - Communion: Principes persecuti sunt

[RB] John Potter, tenor; Richard Wistreich, baritone

The ensemble Red Byrd recorded two discs with liturgical repertoire as performed in Paris in the 12th century, generally referred to as the 'Notre Dame school'. Most of this repertoire is anonymous, but the two names associated with this style are Leoninus and Perotinus. With this disc the ensemble continues its exploration of this kind of repertoire. Then, contrary to what one may expect, the music presented here as 'A Scottish Lady Mass' shows strong similarity to the music sung at the Notre Dame in Paris.

In the Middle Ages St Andrews was the seat of the bishop of Scotland. In the 13th century a cathedral was built there as well as a castle which served as the bishop's residence. Most of the liturgical music sung there wasn't very different from that elsewhere on the British Isles, and was largely based on the York/Sarum rite. But as the bishops almost exclusively were coming from Norman families there were strong connections with the European continent. This explains that a manuscript of liturgical music in the style of the Notre Dame school was put together in St Andrews. Music from this manuscript, now in the Ducal Library of Wolffenbüttel in Germany, and referred to as W1, is performed on this disc. It is likely pieces were taken from Paris during the travels of the bishop and then copied.

Especially interesting in the manuscript are the pieces in the 11th fascicle. "These are works probably composed in St Andrews in a local style and reflecting the pan-national enthusiasm for the Lady Mass. Well before the thirteenth century, the Lady Mass had become established as one of the principal ceremonies in the liturgical week, and by the thirteenth century was celebrated daily, often in a chapel specially dedicated to the Virgin Mary (the Lady Chapel); St Andrews had just such a space. The works in the eleventh fascicle of W1 are remarkable both for their liturgical idiosyncrasy and for their musical style", Mark Everist writes in the booklet.

The manuscript of St Andrews differs from the repertoire in Paris in two respects. Firstly there is a difference in repertoire: this manuscript contains troped sections of the Ordinary (with the exception of the Credo, which was usually not sung polyphonically on the British Isles), tracts, sequences and offertories, whereas in Paris mostly graduals, alleluyas and responsories were set. There is a difference in style as well: in the repertoire of the Notre Dame school the combination of a lower part in long note values and a florid upper part predominates, whereas in the repertoire connected to St Andrews most pieces are written in the note-against-note style. "The St Andrews style is simpler, more direct and – it might be argued – more accessible to the modern ear."

The disc also contains two monophonic pieces from the 10th fascicle of the manuscript, both troped sections of the Ordinary: the Sanctus Christe ierarchia and the Agnus Dei Archetipi mundi. These require a voice with a very wide range, and here John Potter only just manages to sing the upper notes, but the stress it causes is clearly audible. I just wonder whether in the time this music was written singers were probably switching from chest to falsetto register in the highest passages. Maybe John Potter should have done the same, and if he is not able to, another singer should have sung it. This doesn't take anything away from my admiration and general satisfaction about the way this repertoire is performed here. Most pieces are long and complicated, and require not only great vocal skills but also great concentration. The two singers of Red Byrd, John Potter and the baritone Richard Wistreich, meet these requirements impressively.

There are some question marks regarding the pronunciation of the Latin texts. It seems this is mostly Italian, with some modifications, but I wonder whether this is how the texts were pronounced in St Andrews in the 13th century. Could it be done in a strongly anglicised way or perhaps like the French did it?

"It seems likely that performances of the St Andrews music were restricted to a couple of soloists with the schola participating only in those parts of the plainsong that were not set in polyphony. The same applies to the monophonic tropes, but there the balance between soloist and chorus is much more even", according to Mark Everist. And that is the way the music is performed here. Red Byrd, consisting of John Potter and the baritone Richard Wistreich, and Yorvox are giving splendid performances, and the result is a disc with fascinating music, which is a must for everyone interested in early liturgical repertoire.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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