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Recordings

Medieval Christmas
17 Aug 2008

Medieval Christmas

The festal days of Christmas, New Year’s, St. Stephen and St. Thomas Becket are rich in musical celebration, and this recording from the Orlando Consort brings together a wide range of organa, motets, chansons, and carols to remind us of that fact.

Medieval Christmas

The Orlando Consort

Harmonia Mundi HMU 907418

$19.99  Click to buy

Their program is varied, perhaps to the point of straining the coherency of theme. Secular and sacred texts sit side by side, while the music’s chronology spans the Winchester Troper (c. 1000) and the sixteenth-century motets of Clemens non Papa, with visits to the 15-c English carol, a Dufay chanson, and music of the late 14-c Ars subtilior along the way. Additionally, the text theme itself is diverse—apart from proximity in the calendar, what do the Feasts of Becket and the proto-martyr Stephen have to do with Christmas, medieval or otherwise?

The varied repertory here also seems to underscore that the ensemble—naturally enough—is more at home in some styles than others; generally speaking, it is the earlier pieces that fare the best. The full and vibrant singing is well matched to the expansiveness of the Acquitanian polyphony (“O primus homo corruit,” and “Lux refulget”), and rhythmic panache engagingly enlivens both the robust conductus, “Annus renascitur” and the melismatic passages of Dufay’s “Ce jour de l’an,” where lombardic syncopations invite and receive appropriate verve. Equally impressive is the consort’s mastery of the complex, anonymous “De quan qu’on peut,” a subtilior work whose signature rhythmic density is handled with convincing ease. Additionally, in works like Arnold de Lantins’ “De quan qu’on peut,” the consort is much at home with courtly grace, and the distinctive timbres of the individual singers allow one to savor the richness of the counterpoint.

However, the sixteenth-century pieces are perhaps less successful, at least to ears drawn to a leaner purity of tone. The fullness and individuality of tone is at times attractive here, as in the duet sections of Clemens’ lengthy “Nato canunt omnia,” but in tutti contexts, these characteristics seem to constrain other expressive elements that might have come to the fore.

One of the riches of the recording is the consort’s impressive facility with historical, regional pronunciations, a facility that adds much color to the performance and helps to punctuate the variety of the program itself. Medieval Christmas is devoted to that variety, offering aural glimpses of late-December festivities in an array of contexts. The earlier glimpses are the best of the lot, though all will surely gratify.

Steven Plank

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