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Concert reviews

Hildegard Day

Hildegard of Bingen: "The fire of the soul"
Ars Choralis Coeln/Maria Jonas
concert: Feb 25, 2023, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

[in order of performance] [antiphonae] O virtus sapientie; O eterne Deus; Cum erubuerint; Quia ergo femina; Karitas; [responsorium] O viriditas digiti mei; [Sequentia de S. Maria] O virga ac diadema; [responsorium] O vis eternitatis; [Antiphona super Magnificat] O quam mirabilis est - (plainchant): Magnificat; [Symphonia de S. Mariae] O viridissima virga

Hildegard of Bingen: Ordo Virtutum
Tiburtina Ensemble/Barbora Kabátková
concert: Feb 25, 2023, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

Performers of early music are always looking for information about the way music of the past was or may have been performed. They have to accept that some questions may never be answered. The older the music is, the harder it is to find firm evidence on performance practice. In the case of medieval music, each performance is to a large extent based on speculation. The oeuvre of Hildegard of Bingen is a perfect example.

She is one of the best-known composers of the Middle Ages, and her music is often performed on concert platforms across the world. There is also no lack of recordings. Unfortunately, we know next to nothing about the way her music was performed in her own time. All her compositions are monophonic. Does this mean that they have to be sung by a single voice? That seems unlikely: at least some of them were intended for performance in the convent of Rupertsberg of which she was abbess. Therefore her chants may have been sung by several singers in unison. Did they sing a cappella? That is impossible to say. Hildegard had learnt to play the dulcimer, and instruments were used in convents. From that perspective their participation seems possible. If they were used: how? Did they play colla voce or did the players improvise a kind of counterpoint, comparable with the way troubadours and trouvčres are assumed to have accompanied themselves? The lack of information about how Hildegard's chants were performed explains the variety in approaches between performances and recordings.

The Organisatie Oude Muziek, which is responsible for the annual Festival Early Music Utrecht, organizes a 'composer's day' every year in February. In previous editions, composers of the baroque period were in the centre of attention, such as Bach, Purcell and Monteverdi. This time it was Hildegard who was the subject of lectures and concerts. In Utrecht and Amsterdam, two ensembles presented their view on Hildegard's music: Ars Choralis Coeln under the direction of Maria Jonas, and the Tiburtina Ensemble, directed by Barbora Kabátková. As far as the Utrecht wing is concerned, the last concert of a composer's day usually takes place in the large hall of TivoliVredenburg.This time it was rather the chamber music hall Hertz. That was just as well, not only because the large hall is not the best venue for this kind of music, but also for the simple fact that medieval music is not to every early music lover's taste. One needs to pay utmost attention, as the music is very close to plainchant, and for the general listener may include little variety.

Whether the latter is a problem, depends not only on the audience, but also the way it is performed. Ideally the performances would have taken place in a medieval church, such as the Pieterskerk in Utrecht. Apart from the fact that it can't hold as many listeners as Hertz, the problem is also that in such a church it is hard to see anything, if one is seated too far away from the stage. And in both performances, the artists put some effort into creating as much variety as the music allowed.

The first concert was devoted to antiphons, responsories, a sequentia and a symphonia, put together into the collection Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum. The performance opened with O virtus sapientiae, in which the singers started to sing a kind of bourdon, creating several dissonances in the process, from which then a single voice broke away to sing the text. It made me fear the performers would approach Hildegard in a style that once was associated with New Age. Fortunately that was not the case. The performances were more down to earth than was the fashion some decades ago. Some pieces were sung by a solo voice, and closed with the doxology, sung by the entire ensemble. In other pieces, all the singers were involved. In O virga ac diadema a solo voice was supported by an instrument and the other voices, again producing a bourdon. Cum erubuerint was performed in polyphony, and full of dissonances, probably inspired by the text: "While downcast parents blushed, ashamed to see their offspring wand'ring off into the fallen exile's pilgrimage, you cried aloud with crystal voice, to lift up humankind from that malicious fall". I am not convinced that performers should attempt to depict the text in this kind of music. I noted the same now and then in O virga ac diadema, for instance on the phrase "per consilium serpentis" (through the deception of the snake).

The singers moved around a little, but not too much. It would not have made much sense anyway. The variety of voices within the ensemble was clearly noticeable, but did not compromise the ensemble. Ars Choralis Coeln consisted of four singers and one instrumentalist, but the latter also sometimes joined the singers with her voice, and all singers now and then played an instrument. They are real multitalents. The performance of a plainchant version of the Magnificat, preceded by Hildegard's antiphon O quam mirabilis est, offered the opportunity to notice both the similarity and the differences between the two. Despite some issues, mentioned above, it was a memorable event, thanks to the excellent singing and playing of the ensemble and the way the programme had been constructed.

The evening concert, for which the Tiburtina Ensemble, directed by Barbora Kabátková had been invited, was devoted to a single and unique work, the Ordo Virtutum. It is a morality play, and the first (extant) specimen of this genre in history. We know comparable works from much later. Emilio de' Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo, performed a few years ago at the Festival Early Music Utrecht by Vox Luminis, is the first major work of this kind. Specimens from the 18th century are Handel's Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno and Mozart's Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots. In literature several morality plays are known, but they have not come down to us with music (which does not exclude the possibility that they may have been performed with music). That makes Hildegard's Ordo unique. The whole idea of a dramatic work with music was not: in church the main feasts of the ecclesiastical year, such as Christmas and Easter, could be celebrated with liturgical plays.

In the Ordo the soul (Anima) has to decide which side to choose. The devil - a speaking role - tries to make her move to his side, whereas the counterpoint is delivered by a collective of Virtues (Virtutes) or several from them individually, such as Humility (Humilitas), Charity (Caritas), Obedience (Obedientia) and Chastity (Castitas). At first the soul, which considers itself happy, answers a group of souls that feel themselves imprisoned in bodies. They could be identified in that they sung with their back to the audience. At the back of their head they wore masks, representing human bodies. The soul wants to go straight to heaven, but the Virtues tell her that she has to face life, and this forces her into a confrontation with the devil. The third Actus is about the confrontation between the two camps. At the start of Actus IV we learn that the soul had fallen for the tricks of the devil. She now repents, and when the devil asks her why she has turned, she replies that she has realized that her ways were wrong. She is now ready to fight with him, with the help of the Virtues. Together they conquer the devil and bind him. The work ends with an Epilogus, which is a monologue of the Virtues, ending with the morale: "So now, all people, bend your knees before your father so that he may stretch out this hand to you."

Although it is a play, the Ordo Virtutum is not something like a medieval opera. Barbora Kabátková did realize that and did not make it too dramatic. The third Actus, which consists entirely of a dialogue between the various characters, is not dramatic at all. But there was some modest staging, and in particular the role of the devil was acted in a more or less 'operatic' way. Marnix De Cat, who portrayed him very convincingly, used the venue effectively, commenting from various places in the hall, including some of the balconies. Sabine Lutzenberger took the role of the soul. She is a veteran in the early music scene, but is still going very strong, as she demonstrated here. She gave a differentiated account of her role: she was restrained at first, but with time she showed stronger emotions, reflecting the various stages the soul went through, and she adapted her voice and her way of singing to it. When she, doing repentence, was accepted by the Virtues, this was made visible in that she was included in the circle. The singing of the ensemble was outstanding, and the various members gave good accounts of their respective roles. The narrow, but clearly noticeable vibrato of Kamila Mazalová was a little disappointing, though.

At several moments the singers were accompanied instrumentally. The harp, either played by Katerina Ghannudi or Barbora Kabátková, played a major role. There were also some instrumental interludes, for instance when the singers moved around at the stage. In addition to the harp we heard a fiddle and a dulcimer.

It seems to me that Barbóra Kabátková had found the right approach to this work: there was a good connection between the storyline and the staging. The latter was just enough to keep the attention of the audience's eyes. It never stood in the way of the music, making sure that the piece's message came across. The performance was incisive and communicative - just what may well have been Hildegard's intentions.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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