musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Vox Clara - Late Medieval Chant from Riga, Hamburg, Lund, Limoges"

Schola Cantorum Riga; Ieva Nimane, recorder, bagpipe, kokle
Dir: Guntars Pranis

rec: 2020, Liepaja (LV), Great Amber Concert Hall
Skani - LMIC/SKANI085 (© 2020) (57'04")
Liner-notes: E/LT; lyrics - translations: E/LT
Cover & track-list

anon: Alleluya alto re di gloria; Benedicamus; Gaude Maria; Ingrediente Domino; Kyrie eleison ymas; Miserere mei; Plangas cum lacrimis; Quasi stella matutina; Res est admirabilis; Respondemos; Unicornis captivatur; Uterus hodie; Veni Sancte Spiritus; Vox clara

Janis Kursevs, Rudolfs Bertins, Janis Moors, Martins Moors, Kaspars Milasevic, Dainis Geidmanis, voice; Guntars Pranis, voice, hurdy-gurdy; Ansis Klucis, percussion

Before the Reformation, all people in Europe belonged to the Christian Church. Its centre was Rome, but that did not implicate that the Church looked the same in all parts of the continent. There were quite some differences, for instance in the field of liturgy. Although Latin was the language of the Church, it was not pronounced the same way everywhere: the pronunciation in France and in Germany, for example, was very different. There was also quite some musical variation: even when the same texts were used, they could be sung on different melodies. In addition, there was variety in the way music was performed, which was partly influenced by traditional music. Part of musical traditions were also musical instruments, which may have been used in liturgical and para-liturgical repertoire.

As the information about performance practice from the Middle Ages is rather scarce, performances in our time have inevitably something speculative. However, there are specialists in this field who can help performers to find their way in this repertoire and to do justice to the differences between the various regions in Europe. The disc under review here offers a quite fascinating insight into the performance practises of the time.

As the subtitle indicates, the pieces are taken from sources across Europe, from Riga to Limoges. Pieces connected to Christmastide are the thread of this programme, but we also get pieces for other stages in the ecclesiastical year, such as Veni, Sancte Spiritus. The programme even includes a Sephardic song, Respondemus, whose text refers to the patriarchs of the Old Testament: Abraham, Isaac (Yitsc'hak) and Jacob (Yakov).

The programme opens with a conductus for Christmas: "The wonderful occasion, venerable virgin gave birth but remained intact". The conductus was the main form of sacred music before the motet made its appearance. This particular piece is from a Limoges gradual of the 12th century. In this performance several instruments participate, such as the recorder and percussion. Next is Vox clara, which gave this disc its title. It is a piece for Advent: "Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding: "Christ is nigh", it seems to say". It is from a hymnbook of the 5th century, according to the booklet. It does surprise, then, that it includes a second voice. At that time polyphony did not exist. The second voice may well have been added on the basis of how the ensemble's director thinks such a piece was performed. Maybe he had a performance in later time in mind. It is a bit disappointing that the liner-notes are very short and don't go into detail about the music and the performances. The third piece, Benedicamus, is from a much later time, the 14th century, and is taken from the Codex di Perugia. At that time in Italy instruments did play a substantial role in both secular and sacred music. The text is short - "Benedicamus Domino" - but the piece takes here 4'32", because in alternation with the voices, we hear instrumental performances.

Ingrediente Domino is a responsorium; the versus is performed here by a solo voice with instruments. The piece is taken from an antiphonary from the Monastery of St Maur-des-Fossés. Next is a Kyrie; the booklet mentions 15th-century sources from Riga and Hamburg. Whether this means that this piece appears in both sources or that in this performance two pieces are mixed, remains a mystery; the latter possibility seems most likely. Miserere mei Deus is one of the seven penitential psalms, performed here alternately monophonically and in falsobordone. It is a piece in which we also hear the kokle, a plucked string instrument (cordophone) from the Baltic region. The first such instruments that have been found date from the 13th century, which justifies its involvement in music from this time. In Unicornus captivatur we meet the mythical figure of the unicorn, which was popular in medieval art and prayer books. It was understood as representing Christ. This piece also includes other images of Christ, such as the dying lamb, the conquering lion, the wounded pelican and the phoenix. The piece is taken from the Codex Engelberg (Switzerland).

Another piece for Christmastide is Uterus hodie: "Today the belly of the virgin has flourished". It is a so-called versus, one of whose features is its rhyme. Here the various stanzas are sung by a solo voice, the refrain - "O partus mirabilis" (O wonderful birth) - by the ensemble. This piece is from a codex from Limoges. Plangas cum lacrimis and Quasi stella matutina are both from Offices included in a Hamburg antiphonary of the 14th century. The latter is from the Office of Saint Anna, according to some traditions the mother of Mary.

Alleluya alto re di gloria is a specimen of an important genre of para-liturgical music which existed from the 13th century until well into the 17th century, known as laude. They were the product of the missionary activities of in particular Dominicans and Franciscans in several regions in Italy. This piece is taken from a laudario in Florence. It has a typical form of stanzas sung by a solo voice, and a refrain sung by the ensemble. The participation of recorder and percussion is certainly in accordance with how this kind of music was performed at the time.

Given the increasing popularity of the veneration of Mary during the Middle Ages, it is appropriate that the programme ends with a piece about her: Gaude Maria, taken from a collection of Marian music in Lund (14th century): "Rejoice, Mary, temple of the greatest Trinity".

It is not easy to assess the way the music on this disc is performed. The ensemble's director, Guntars Pranis, is a specialist in this field, and therefore one may expect that his decisions are based on what he has found out about the way the music was performed at the time it came into existence. I am not in the position to judge whether he is right or not. Anyway, I have very much enjoyed this disc. The music and especially the variety of forms are quite fascinating. This disc offers an insight into the colourful world of medieval liturgical and para-liturgical music, and the influences of traditional music. I did not know the Schola Cantorum Riga, an ensemble of male voices, but it specializes in medieval music, and that shows here. The singing is excellent, and the voices blend perfectly. Three of its members take care of the solos and do so very well. The instruments play an important role here, and they substantially contribute to the impression this repertoire makes.

This disc is a valuable addition to any collection of medieval music.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Ieva Nimane
Schola Cantorum Riga

CD Reviews