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Concert reviews

HILDEGARD of Bingen (1098-1179): "Visions of Hildegard"
Ensemble Tiburtina/Barbora KabŠtkovŠ
concert: May 6, 2015, Zeist, Church of the Community of Moravian Brethren

Hildegard of Bingen: Ave Maria, responsory; Caritas abundat, antiphon; Cum vox sanguinis, hymn; Domine, Dominator noster, psalm; Kyrie eleison; Nunc gaudeant, antiphon; O beata infantia, antiphon; O Jerusalem, aurea civitas, sequence; O quam mirabilis es, antiphon; O spectabiles viri, antiphon; O tu illustrata, antiphon; Ordo Virtutum (Virtutes - O Deus, qui es tu) anon: Deus misertus hominis, conductus; Flos in monte cernitur, conductus; Praemii dilatio, conductus

Ivana Bilej BroukovŠ, Tereza HavlikovŠ, soprano; Marta FadljevicovŠ, Anna ChadimovŠ HavlikovŠ, mezzo-soprano; Daniela CermŠkovŠ, Kamila MazalovŠ, contralto; Hana BlazikovŠ, Barbora KabŠtkovŠ, soprano, harp; Margit ‹bellacker, psaltery

Hildegard of Bingen is a composer who appeals to the imagination of many different people. She is also one of the most ideologically abused composers. As she seems to have been a strong and independent character she has been adopted by feminists as an early personification of their ideals. The mystical character of her texts and her music has led to her being embraced by New Age. And then there are musicians who feel free to perform her music with the instruments and in a style which are far away from what was common in her time. If she would be able to listen to what some 'interpreters' make of her compositions she would be very surprised.

Barbara StŁhlmeyer, who closely worked with the ensemble Sequentia in its project of recording Hildegard's complete oeuvre, stated that "Hildegard's songs are not examples of art music that are at home onstage and that can be arranged in effective ways depending on the performers' inspiration and wealth of ideas. The longer the ensemble [Sequentia] has worked on this music and examined the research that has been conducted on it, the more it has become clear that we are dealing here with music for the liturgy." She points out that Hildegard's music reflects the faith of her time.

It seems that these views are shared by the members of the Czech ensemble Tiburtina which presented a programme of pieces by Hildegard during a tour through the Netherlands and Belgium. I heard the concert in Zeist, in the church of the Moravian brothers which logistically and acoustically is perfectly suited to this kind of repertoire and the way Tirburtina performs it.

Music by Hildegard can have a neck-tingling effect, especially if performed live. That was certainly the case here, right from the word go when the ensemble started to sing at the back of the church and then walked in procession towards the stage. O Ierusalem was a fitting opening of the night: a long and mesmerizing sequence devoted to St Rupert, who had a special place in her thinking. He was regarded as the patron saint of pilgrims and Hildegard founded her own convent on the Rupertsberg, at the site of Rupert's burial.

This sequence was followed by the antiphon O tu illustrata, performed by a solo voice (Hana BlazikovŠ) accompanied on the harp. Ms BlazikovŠ was one of various members of the ensemble who came forward in a solo role. It was remarkable that every single voice was different in character and colour, yet together the singers produced a impressively coherent sound. That is especially important as all of Hildegard's compositions are strictly monodic. One won't find any polyphony in her oeuvre.

It is common practice to use instruments in performances of Hildegard's works adding additional voices through improvisation. There is no objection against that, because the use of instruments in Hildegard's circle is documented. But in line with what Barbara StŁhlmeyer points out it is preferable to apply them with caution and restraint. Over the years Sequentia showed increasing modesty in this department, and that was also the case in this concert. Only two instruments were employed: the harp - played by Hana BlazikovŠ and the ensemble's director, Barbora KabŠtkovŠ - and the psaltery, played by Margit ‹bellacker.

It was a very wise decision of the ensemble to perform the programme at a stretch, without an interval. That would have broken up the tension and the atmosphere which the ensemble was able to evoke. About 70 minutes of music without interruption is quite demanding for any ensemble at any time, but especially in a programme with music by Hildegard (interspersed by some anonymous items) where most singers participated in almost every piece. Moreover, this kind of music requires the highest degree of concentration. It was admirable how the singers stood the test and delivered an incisive and fascinating interpretation. It is a token of their skills that the audience listened with great concentration and that nobody felt the need to disturb the atmosphere with applause. That came only after the ensemble had left the hall in procession while singing Psalm 8, Domine, Dominator noster.

The affectionate and enthusiastic applause was well deserved as this was certainly one of the most compelling concerts of the season.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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