LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: 13th- and 14th-century English chant and polyphony
PERFORMER: Anonymous 4
CATALOGUE NO: HMU 907222
These two discs form a very interesting contrast. Both are by groups of female singers and both attempt to construct a picture in sound of a medieval scene. Anonymous 4 has gone for a liturgical reconstruction, basing its selection on a possible Mass to the Virgin on the Feast of the Assumption (15 August).
This is intended to be a sequel to their best-selling disc An English Ladymass (also on Harmonia Mundi), and we find here the usual spacious acoustics, the ravishing bell-like harmoniousness (especially in the brilliant motet ‘In odore’) and the soothing ooziness of the plainsongs (perfectly served up in ‘Alma Dei genitrix’).
But even pleasant mannerisms can begin to get on one’s nerves; every intensity curve is the same shape, the singers’ long pauses between phrases are habitual (as in ‘Paradisi porta’), the pace is mostly gentle (‘O ceteris’ is very slow) and the gliding part movement can be imprecise (as in the Agnus Dei).
One yearns for something that brings colour to the cheeks. And this is what we get from Discantus. It uses music to construct, not a formal event, but an imaginary landscape – a ‘Garden of Delights’ – evoked by the compositions of two medieval abbesses, Hildegard of Bingen and Herrad of Landsberg. The opening item, ‘Enixa est puerpa’, signals a more gutsy approach than Anonymous 4, and the lively canon, ‘Congaudeat turba’, may have rough moments (and too much vibrato), but it simply dances along.
But, for wonderful variety of phrasing (something rarely found in Anonymous 4 recordings), listen to its splendid evocation of ornamental style in the offertory ‘Offerentur regi virgines’. There is all the difference in the world between a garden of delights and a well-groomed flower arrangement. Anthony Pryer