Old music, new sounds
Since it became a major force about a generation ago, "early music" has provided us with some of the most stimulating sounds in all classicaldom. This certainly goes for the movement's incursions into the standard repertoire, in which the results may be spotty — maybe "dotty" would be a better adjective — but to which it has given a badly needed shaking-up. And it goes double for the movements excursions into the hitherto under-appreciated repertoires of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque. Who knew there were such treasure-troves of wonder and beauty, just waiting for intrepid musical explorers to unearth them? Of course, the unearthing was the easy part. It's what you do with the treasures once you've got them that makes the difference. And as two marvelous new CDs attest, in sympathetic hands (and voices), the music of long ago and far away can be as fresh and timely, as anything you'll find over at Newbury Comics.
When one fertile ground of classical coolness, early music, combines with another, the Baltics, listen up! A group of twelve singers, instrumentalists, conductors and scholars from Estonia, Vox Clamantis has spent the last sixteen years sharing their common interest in Medieval chant, Gregorian and otherwise, which they perform alongside early polyphonic ("many-voiced") works. They've also collaborated with many top early music and new music performers, and have premiered works by leading Estonian composers such as Arvo Pärt, Helena Tulve (wife of their conductor Jaan-Eik Tulve) and Erkki-Sven Tüür. Indeed, for an early music group to branch out to contemporary music has become norm rather than the exception, just as many living composers have found inspiration in the haunting melodies and spare textures of ancient choral music.
For their new CD "Filia Sion," Vox Clamantis retreated into St. Nicolas Church in Haapsalu, western Estonia, built in 1260, and thus more-or-less contemporaneous with many of the fifteen selections. And quite a comprehensive survey of Medieval music it is, including straight, single-line Gregorian chant, the mystical melodies and poetry of the German abbess Hildegard of Bingen, the early French polyphonic style known as organum, and two important collections of early polyphony, the Montpelier Manuscript and the Codex Las Huelgas. Oh, and one final, suprising selection: "Ma navu," a chant from the centuries-old Jewish community of Cochin, India. While considerable scholarship clearly went into the realizations of such minimally notated works, this is the furthest thing from an academic exercise, like the dreadful recorded anthologies some of us endured during our college years. Vox Clamantis probably breaks some of the "rules" about Medieval music, to the extent anyone has any idea how it actually would have sounded. By combing male and female voices, by pitting soloists against the choir, and even by using contemporary and non-standard vocal techniques (I swear I hear "overtone singing" behind Hildegard's "O ignis spiritus"), Vox Clamantis's imagination and musicality make for an absorbing and inspiring musical encounter. They sing very well too, but then again, so seemingly does everyone in Estonia.
Among those who have made beautiful music (literally) with Vox Clamantis is singer, harp player and composer Arianna Savall. Practically early music royalty, Arianna is the daughter of the acclaimed viola da gamba player and conductor Jordi Savall (leader of Le Concert des Nations, La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Hesperion XXI) and the late soprano Montserrat Figueras. With her pure, piercing and intimately expressive vocal tone, Arianna Savall movingly channels her late mother, the dedicatee of the new album "Hirundo Maris," a collaboration with the Norwegian singer and Hardanger fiddle player Petter Udland Johansen. Catalan folksongs, ballads from Norway, Scotland and the Sephardim (the Jews of Old Spain) and a couple of originals — "Hirundo Maris" may depart in letter from the early repertoire, but its evocative "the old is new again" quality represents the spirit of early music at its best. And unless you've somehow tired of beautiful songs rendered in sweet harmony and backed up by harp, fiddle, double bass, dobro (!) and percussion, you may find "Hirundo Maris" to be the most haunting CD you've heard this year. We'll give you a chance, too, as we'll be sprinkling selections from both of these new CDs into our classical playlists on WFCR.