South Florida Classical Review »» Seraphic Fire’s New CD Captures the Beauty and Mystery of Hildegard

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Seraphic fire, Hildegard von Bingen: Ordo Virtutum (SFM).

The first thing we notice about the new assured recording of Hildegard von Bingen’s Seraphic Fire Ordo Virtutum is the sound.

When von Bingen created this 12th-century musical drama, she could never have imagined a performance beyond ceremonies within her monastic community of nuns. The chapels and the halls were their meeting places, the passage of time was marked by prayers, the songs echoed in greater stillness. And that sense of intimate distance – depth and breadth – is captured here in the pure-toned chorus of “Introit for the Dedication of a Church”.

This space, the Sauder Concert Hall at Goshen College, Indiana, is part of the drama of this CD, which features the world premiere of Ordo Virtutum in a “complete” version which includes the medieval liturgical text.

Patrick Dupre Quigley is the conductor, and musicologist Honey Meconi, an expert on von Bingen, is credited as artistic advisor (she also wrote the notes for the informative booklet). Their design shifts voices from the back to the front of the sound field, a simple idea that replaces the sight of a ceremony with the sound of one. The passage from the “Introït” to the “Prologue” (and beyond) is marked by ringing rattlesnakes and the clear shift in the presence of sound. In front of his ears, the performers enter the stage then move towards the listener. The ear moves with greater attention to the speakers.

This is a drama of virtues – a translation of the title is “The Rite of Virtues” – in which these virtues, such as faith, chastity, heavenly love and mercy, led by Anima (mezzo-soprano Luthien Brackett) and humility (mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski) are beset by the Devil (bass James K. Bass). While the assembled virtues choir sings without vibrato, the solo voices add touches here and there at the end of sentences, an emphasis which, even through Latin, transforms musical sentences into meaningful utterances. There is a strong dramatic contrast, serious but with a sense of playful excitement, with the melodious lines of Brackett and Osowski, rising and falling with the pleasant naturalness of the breath, and the vile articulations of Bass. The Devil is charismatic as always, the Virtues imposing and imperturbable.

The devil’s appearance is heralded by clicking stones, one of the expressive freedoms Seraphic Fire has taken with the original material. This is early music, and much of the interpretation of von Bingen’s work involves putting together fragments and figuring out how to understand and translate his notation, which comes from an era that recorded the order of pitches but left rhythms and timings to an interpretation consistent with a general consensus long lost. As Quigley explains in the libretto, the band gave most of the notes equal timing, but followed what appears to be an intuitive approach to adjusting the rhythms for passages where the melodic and textual drama of the music looms large. demanded. It’s monophonic music, but in the key sections, the singers split into an octave or sing a line against a drone. Quigley writes that these “creative choices for this particular performance are not stated in the manuscript.”

Like, this CD shows they were smart choices. Musical performances are skillful and refined – the nature of using a modern and professional ensemble for a piece specially crafted for von Bingen’s peers and colleagues regardless of their musicality – and in interpretations of works like that – here there is always the danger of being too smooth, too shiny, transformed into a sound object without any of the force of meaning with which the work was first created.

But the interpretive touches add surprises and mysteries – even knowing they are coming, the clicking stones remain eerie and intriguing – and the rhythmic and harmonic variations drive the work through tension to a palpable sense of finality. . And when it comes to the sound of the recording, the rich and clear resonance has every note of melody hanging in the air, a built-in backdrop of harmonic tension and releases that adds to the beauty of this CD, and the feeling of a clock break so one can hear and witness something important.

Posted in Shows


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