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Sacred Music from Notre-Dame Cathedral
24 Jun 2007

Sacred Music from Notre-Dame Cathedral

In charting the history of music in the West, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Paris loom large as a golden age of innovative polyphony, a golden age that is much the fruits of two composers, Leoninus and Perotinus.

Sacred Music from Notre-Dame Cathedral

Tonus Peregrinus; Antony Pitts, Director

Naxos 8.557340 [CD]

$7.99  Click to buy

Their famous magnus liber organi—the great book of organum—preserves polyphonic settings of responsorial chants, works that define and establish Gothic sound much as the cathedral in which they were sung, Notre Dame in Paris, defines and establishes our notions of Gothic space.

Tonus Peregrinus offers three of the most substantial Notre Dame works—the two-voice Viderunt by Leoninus and the four-voice Viderunt and Sederunt by Perotinus. Pitts divides his ensemble into lower- and upper-ranged forces, and the opportunity to hear this repertory in both ranges is a welome one. In the main, these forces remain discrete and the polyphony is performed appropriately by soloists. In one instance, however—at the end of the two-voiced Viderunt—Pitts combines the registers. The octave doubling in itself is not problematic, but in that the doubling requires transforming a solo line into a choral one, there is a loss of responsiveness and flexibility in the process, and that is a loss, albeit only a momentary one.

The performances of these large-scaled organa are otherwise impressive. In the discantus sections—the sections where the notes of all the parts move together in rhythmic pattern—Pitts allows the music to unfold at a congenially leisurely pace. This contrast to many modern performances allows singer and listener alike to dwell in the time rather than to push the time ahead; the more contemplative turn is an attractive one. In the solo sections, Richard Eteson deserves special mention for his wonderfully contoured sense of both individual notes and phrase. Similarly, Rebecca Hickey’s monophonic conductus, Beata viscera, is rapturous, expressive, and exquisite, a memorable opening to the whole program.

The program is one that shows the signs of special care in its construction, for it is obvious that Pitts wants to demonstrate historical development here. For instance, the two-voiced organal setting of Viderunt is followed by substitute clausulae and a motet on part of its foundational chant. The clausulae are short sections of a minute or less, whose purpose in the program is surely instructive, rather than aesthetic. And these are followed in turn by the four-voice setting of the same chant. Thus, in large part, the program is showing a notable variety of ways of treating the same pre-existent melody, and this variety developed within the school of Notre Dame. In a similar vein, Pitts remains instructive with the inclusion of a psalm whose twenty verses are sung in different intervallic configurations to demonstrate the range of possibilities described in the ninth-century treatise, the Scholia enchiriadis, famous for being among the first theoretical sources to describe polyphony. It is an interesting pedagogical aside in the program, but one that does not distract from the splendid singing of the large-scale pieces.

The ensemble’s use of Roman Latin pronunciation is curious, and one might have welcomed their sonic palette being extended and enriched with period French pronunciation. This, however, is but a small quibble; the recording is impressive.

Steven Plank

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