|REVIEWS: divine art dda 25065 Apostle of Ireland|
It is very difficult to pick fault with such a beautiful recording. The highlights for me are from the First Vespers. The unison antiphons, illustrating the life of St Patrick, create a clear, open and disciplined sound. These are lacking in emotional excitement, but create a gentle and meditative mood – until the Prosa Mente munda letabunda offers an isolated moment of modal rhythm. This is bright and brisk with contrasting droned harmonies, and is followed directly by the hymn Exultent filii matris ecclesia which, by contrast, is led by syllabic stresses, with new vocal colours, introducing a much freer, lighter and higher tonal range.
The office of Matins occupies the largest portion of the recording, and displays less sense of drama or celebration, in its ritualistic movement and its musical momentum. The full Matins would be the longest, and musically most wide-ranging, service of the day. Its full two-and-a-half hour structure has been cut down in length, and the office probably loses some of its formal complexity and ritualistic intensity by being abbreviated in this way. It opens with a very beautiful extended invitatory, followed by a lighter hymn Ad hanc doctor with harp accompaniment (drawing upon the second part of the hymn Ecce fulget clarissima from the First Vespers). Since much of the standard liturgical chant has been omitted, the rest of the service consists of a rather long series of alternating unadorned antiphons and responsories accompanied by the harp which, though very beautifully performed, become a little unrelenting.
William Taylor's wire-strung clarsach is a gentle, subdued adornment to the whole, and considering the strong argument made for the harp's use in the sleeve notes, I was left wishing that the colours and variety made possible by the harp had been used a little less tentatively. Taylor's light touch enhances some colours, but can sometimes be a little obscured. The instrumental sound could, perhaps, have been used more fully to punctuate or vary the controlled restraint of the ensemble's predominantly vocal character.
Rebecca Tavener writes ‘As entertainers our interest lies [at least partially in offering] the most interesting musical experiences', while she professes the aesthetic of ‘less is more'. Applying equal note lengths to the ligatures and written chant, as they have, should indeed allow subtle changes of tempo and emphasis to the test and phrase shapes. It keeps their unison singing extraordinarily tight, but at times, this does slow down the narrative quality.
In discussing the use of the harp in monastic establishments, Tavener acknowledges that ‘the sacred medieval music of Scotland and Ireland could not fail to be influenced by centuries of secular bardic practice'. Why not also apply this to the telling of the saint's own, rather dramatic story? Canty are reverential and selfless in their performance of this meditative work, but I would argue for even more variation between stressed and unstressed syllables, and more varied tempi to reflect dramatic, storytelling techniques.
Apostle of Ireland is another subtle and sensitive recreation of devotional music, meticulously researched, and convincingly performed. Canty are an ensemble whose voices maintain individual characteristics, while integrating into a seamlessly unified whole. Their discipline and their ravishing vocal quality make this recording a welcome moment of calm and devotion in an agitated time.
We actually know very little about St Patrick: that he was not Irish; that he was born towards the end of the fourth century CE in Britain of a family organized under the influence of the waning Roman empire and probably subject to Irish incursions and the predations of pirates; the latter apparently enslaved him into Ireland, from where he escaped, spent some time in France before returning to Britain. By 432 he had taken up missionary work in Ireland and had been consecrated as Bishop. It seems as though his work converting the local aristocracy to christianity and overcoming persistent tribal dangers quickly became legendary. He was aided by an effective pragmatism, and by skills at organization. After his death (probably in 461), these qualities, and his great piety, contributed to a widening and at times mythic reputation. But St Patrick's has come to have a "reach" greater than across Ireland… he is also patron saint of Nigeria, Montserrat, excluded people and engineers.
The Office for St Patrick consists of a collection of Propers sung at Matins and Lauds (night-time and at dawn) and during the first and second Vespers in the evening. Because Matins were the most extensive part of the service (lasting over two hours), we necessarily get excerpts on this CD. They're taken from manuscripts held at Trinity College Dublin (chiefly TCD 79, 80). They are of fifteenth century origin. Significantly, the Office presented here is the only known extant such liturgical work from medieval Ireland. That would be reason alone to want this well-produced CD if it weren't for the skill and spontaneity of the performers on this CD; they make it a delight.
Canty is a Scottish group with both an affinity to the celtic world of St Patrick and a desire to emphasize the Caledonian connections which can be proved (or assumed) for St Patrick. Furthermore, the arrangements – with improvised celtic harp, for example – necessarily draw on what Rebecca Tavener, Canty's director, suggests was the "influence [… of] centuries of secular bardic practice". She writes, "We feel there is no reason to suppose that this most Celtic of instruments might not have been in use in the performance of an indigenous chant repertoire for several centuries." The music on this CD, though, is not folk or "crossover" in any sense. It has necessarily been put together with a degree of speculation. The chant is mostly sung with equal notes; the voices are all those of women. Drone has only been added when Canty felt that it actually added something. The text, in other words, has been allowed to dictate the overall sound. And, however familiar we may be with these texts from many a liturgical setting, this is all to the good. It aids clarity, expressiveness and impact.
The singing is clear, crisp and very communicative. Each singer is clearly traveling in the same direction, on the same journey, as the others are – and as is William Taylor, the harpist. There is a clear and well maintained sense of purpose in the articulation of each of the texts. The style is relaxed. The unison singing very beautiful. The recording made with an appropriate amount of intimacy and delicacy without ever breathing at the listener. At times the music, most of which is plainchant and simple cantus firmus, is redolent of Hildegard. Although not imbued with her ecstasy – quite – such pieces as the Magnificat antiphon Sis pro nobis sancte Patrici [tr.10] have a rarified refinement that does stop one in one's tracks in that way. But the attack and engagement of Canty is a long way from that of Anonymous 4 in their "11,000 Virgins" or "Origin of Fire" performances. The singers of Canty (who have also a recording of Hildegard on Dorian 93232 , by the way) are softer, more feminine and more confident, almost. Because of this, they convey a humility and reverence which aptly fits the gentle and assured nature of the music.
So what we hear is segments of the Office. But this is enough to convey the majesty, conviction and peculiar mystery of this music, much of it slow and meditative – the sinuous and reflexive Egregius Christi miles responsory [tr.16], for example, you wish would never stop. This also means we get ample variety and an excellent idea of what such services might have meant to celebrants five hundred and more years ago. This CD is not about atmosphere, though; it's a valid and well-executed collection of spare yet tuneful, melodically inventive and sophisticated music that is sure to please all lovers of early choral music. The CD comes with an attractively-produced booklet with texts in both Latin and English and a useful introductory essay. Recommended both for the rarity of repertoire and completely successful execution.
Now they turn their attention to a reconstruction of the music for First Vespers, Matins, Lauds and Second Vespers for St Patrick's Day. They are joined, as before, by William Taylor playing a wire-strung clarsach or Gaelic harp. With minor reservations, this new CD deserves the praise which my colleagues gave to those ASV recordings.
St Patrick is, of course, much better known to the world in general than St Bridget, so the CD should have popular appeal, not least to the Irish community in the US. Recordings of chant appear to be flavour of the moment again, but I wonder how many potential buyers there will be for this reconstruction. The earlier ASV recordings already seem to have been deleted – at least I cannot find them on offer at online retailers – I hope the new CD fares better. Felix femina is still available from iTunes, as is this new CD.
The unobtrusive accompaniment of the clarsach will probably add to the appeal of the recording, but the use of any instrumental accompaniment to the chant of the office is highly controversial. Perhaps it was employed in convents where the nuns were not up to chanting the office without assistance – which is hardly the case with Canty. Not everything is accompanied – the first antiphon is, the next few are not and the clarsach does not reappear until track 7, the responsory Magni patris sunt miranda – so the performers could be said to be hedging their bets so as not to offend those musicologists who insist on unaccompanied performance. Though I tend towards the Christopher Page school of thought – the instruments on his excellent Gothic Voices recordings, slowly being reissued at budget price by Hyperion Helios, very restricted – I was not disturbed by the instrumental accompaniment here.
The singing is excellent, quite the equal of Anonymous Four on their very fine Harmonia Mundi recordings and preferable to a similar Telarc album Angeli – Music of Angels, to which I gave a guarded review some time ago (CD-80448 – see review). If the Telarc CD made excellent music for relaxation, this Canty recording does the same but with a sharper eye to authenticity. Music for relaxation may not be the prime purpose of the recording, but it will be an excellent by-product. Even if you don't want to go beyond that, the CD should appeal, though I should remind you of another excellent recent recording of plainsong: Chant, Music for Paradise (Universal UCJ176 6016) another CD which can be appreciated at a variety of levels, including relaxation – see review.
Most of the music for Apostle of Ireland has been specially edited from two manuscripts in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, TCD79 and TCD80, transcribed by Dr Ann Buckley, whose two-page description of these sources in the booklet greatly adds to the value of the notes and to the authenticity of the recording. The Magnificat on the final track is chanted to an excellent setting, quite different from the normal tone, which adds to the attractiveness of the recording.
The lavish and informative booklet is let down only by a weird typo which turns the title of the first antiphon, Veneranda imminentis diei back to front as Veneranda entisimmin. I could have done without the photograph of Canty in their natty green tabards embellished with Celtic crosses – though of Irish descent, I don't go much on that sort of thing – but I did like the paintings by Maria Rud, combining elements of the modern and the medieval, which embellish the front and back of the CD.
The translations, by Senan Furlong, OSB, are accurate and idiomatic, though the combination of the modern (has) and Book of Common Prayer (hath) wording is discordant at times. As a bonus additional to the excellent singing, putting all these texts together will inform you about the life of Patrick, including his famous banishment of the serpents from Ireland (Exultent filii matris eccelsie, track 8) – unfortunately, the story is mythical: there never were any snakes in post-Ice Age Ireland. You'll also find on track 7 the supposed revelation of Purgatory to Patrick; though this was hardly an established doctrine in Patrick's day, medieval literature abounds with accounts of sinners who repented after being granted a vision of ‘St Patrick's Purgatory'.
With excellent recording, this CD may be strongly recommended. At whatever level you listen, you will find spiritual nourishment here – I guarantee that you won't think the 78 minutes too long.
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