Mysteries of Gregorian Chant

Singers of St Laurence, conducted by Neil McEwen
Classical, Early Music, Plainchant
ABC Classics 4765106
Reviewed by , April 1st, 2014

Given its over two millennia long history, one might have imagined the liturgical chant of the Christian church to have been better recorded than it is. To be fair, recordings of plainchant are not exactly lacking, but the appearance of a recital-style disc almost completely dedicated to ‘Gregorian’ chant is a reasonably rare thing and the fact that one has appeared in this country, featuring not just singers from Australia, but drawing on the music contained in a manuscript held in one of our libraries and under the aegis of ABC Classics is a considerable cause for celebration.

This disc features the Singers of St Lawrence, a Sydney-based mixed vocal group, under the direction of noted chant semiotician, Dr Neil McEwen. The programme is centred around music from the State Library of New South Wales’ 1328 Rimini Antiphonal, itself an important production of manuscript art of the early Renaissance, particularly in the brilliance of its illuminated initials. Antiphons from the Common of the Saints drawn from the manuscript form the backbone of a programme that also incorporates material from the ‘standard’ Gregorian repertoire (including some very well know chants, such as Salve Regina), two works by St Hildegard of Bingen and three polyphonic works from Tudor England.

Historiated letter E illustrating Christ blessing the four saints

While the choice to delve deeply into the music of a single manuscript is commendable, the narrowness of the Rimini Antiphonal’s content in terms of genre stands in the way of allowing this disc to flower fully. Almost all of the works are in the relatively light-limbed, largely neumatic, melodic style of the typical antiphon, most lasting no longer than a couple of minutes. As a result, the listener is exposed to a series of short sentences rather than hearing anything approaching a paragraph. Greater investigation into the repertoires of the tract or sequence, for example, would have allowed more opportunity for contrasts of solo and group singing as well as deeper exploration of poetic and textual types, encouraging a different type of interaction with the text itself. The relative brevity of each of the individual chants and the general similarity of their musical utterance lends a certain uniformity to the disc that strikes one clearly after no more than a handful of tracks. We hear, for example, no real example of the extended jublius, no navigation of more complex melismata, and reasonably few festive chants — Puer natus and Hosanna filio David form notable exceptions in this regard.

There is no doubt that the Singers of St Lawrence are a capable bunch, and particular bouquets go the men to whom the greatest burden of the recording falls. I can’t help feeling, though, that there has been some failure of vision at the level of direction. Neil McEwen’s introductory note makes sure that the reader-listener knows that non-diastematic neumatic notation was richly encoded with what might be crassly called ‘performance instructions’ — indications to move the phrase on a little, linger here, emphasise there — and he also notes that the music drawn from the Rimini Antiphonal selected for the recording, written in black-note notation without these instructions, has been coordinated to some extent with information drawn from the principal non-diastematic sources. But there is almost no evidence, to my ear at least, that the music has been performed so that realises the ways in which this information might shape the music. Essentially, the musical approach to each chant is the same; phrases don’t ever really appear to move on a little, nor is there much lingering (except, almost obligatorily, at ‘cadences’), nor much emphasising. Somewhere along the way, the text receded into the background and ceased to be a motivating force for the music. If it is to be anything, Gregorian chant must be music set into motion by words — and I intend the words, their grammar, their rhetoric, their spirituality, to be the motivating forces here.

The same musical approach also governs the interpretation of the works of St Hildegard, although these are clearly not works in the ‘Gregorian tradition’. St Hildegard’s works are utterly ‘intentional’, works in which poetic text and music are co-ordinated by a single mind and where, more often than not, musical structure and rhetorico-grammatical structure are in complete accord. One cannot, of course, speak of ‘word painting’ in the Renaissance or Baroque sense, but there is compelling union between words and music in her works that one scarcely recognises in this recording.

McEwen urges performers and listeners to hear with the ears of the tenth century. This injunction is probably going to mean different things to different people, but it is sage advice, particularly as — as McEwen himself goes on to note — it means hearing text and music locked in a particular kind of relationship. This recording is accomplished as far as it goes, but hearing that call to tenth-century listenership more urgently would have yielded greater results.


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