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Reviews

Otfrid von Weissenburg: Liber Evangeliorum: Verse and Music From the Age of Charlemagne
08 Feb 2009

Liber Evangeliorum: Verse and Music From the Age of Charlemagne

The emergence of a standardized western liturgy with a uniform chant repertory, while to a significant degree realized, neither completely silenced regional liturgies nor extinguished the additions to liturgical practice that comprise much medieval creativity.

Otfrid von Weissenburg: Liber Evangeliorum — Verse and Music From the Age of Charlemagne

Ensemble Officium; Wilfried Rombach, Director

Christophorus CHR 77279 [CD]

$20.99  Click to buy

The Liber Evangeliorum by the ninth-century monk of Wessenburg Abbey, Otfrid, is a rich example of the creative spirit seeking an outlet. Otfrid’s work provides in vernacular Old High German a poetic text of Gospel narratives, “harmonized” from the different Gospel accounts. Significantly, this text survives in a source that gives St. Gall neumes with some of the verses, confirming that, at least at one time, the text was sung, and in a liturgical context. And it is the challenge of this possibility that the splendid Ensemble Officium embraces.

Ensemble Officium’s recording reconstructs possible musical versions of some of Otfrid’s verses and interweaves them with Gregorian responsories and hymns for Advent and Christmas, and in so doing creates something of the idea of an embellished Vigils liturgy as might have been experienced in the St. Gall orbit. The liturgical reconstruction is “loose” — the chants are drawn from diverse days, for instance — but the interplay of vernacular lessons (Otfrid’s texts) and canonical liturgical material is engaging and resembles the dynamic of lection and lyrical response at the core of the night office.

The recreations of Otfrid’s verses favor variety. In some instances the texts are spoken, in others they are sung to recitational chant. In still others, the verses are spoken to the improvised accompaniment of fiddles, occasionally (and richly) in counterpoint with polyphonic choral lines. The renditions of the liturgical chants are also interestingly conceived, often with instrumental drones and counterpoints, as well as polyphonic vocal layering.

The ensemble is a mixed personnel with both men and women singers. And while the execution is uniformly impressive, the sound of the women is particularly stunning, with pure, bright, highly focused tone. Some of the chants are lengthy — the invitatory “Praeoccupemus” approaches ten minutes, for instance — but the tone and approach are entrancing and hypnotic, with little temptation to check the clock.

Liber Evangelorium is imaginatively conceived and engagingly rendered. Given the amount of interpretation and reconstruction required—the musical notation is imprecise, the performance practice flexible, the liturgical context uncertain — there are ample opportunities for missteps. The historical record offers little room for certainties here, but the aesthetic results of the program and its performance are most assuredly gratifying.

One drawback to the CD, however, is the relative lack of translations. All of the texts have a modern German translation printed; Otfrid’s texts have thumbnail sketches in English and French, as well; the liturgical texts are translated in German without the summaries. Given the care that has been taken in creating the liturgical dynamic, broader access to the text would seem a fitting improvement.

Steven Plank

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