October 25, 2018
(++++) OLD BEAUTIES MADE NEW
Gregorian Chant Melodies, Volumes I and II. The Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, France. Paraclete. $18.99 each.
Then and There, Here and Now. Chanticleer. Warner Classics. $17.98.
There is nothing in modern music quite comparable to the effect of hearing Gregorian chant performed in its original form by a chorus fully versed in the music, the meaning of the words, and the Latin language. Many contemporary composers have used Gregorian chant in their own ways or modified it to accommodate the musical changes that have occurred over the last 500 years and more. But nothing that is derived from the original, nothing that builds on its foundation, nothing that reflects it, has the purity and sense of timelessness that true Gregorian chant possesses. Even for those who are not Catholic, even for those who are not religious at all, there is an evanescent spirituality about this material, which was originally created to accompany the Mass and divine office of Roman Catholicism, but eventually became no less than the foundation of Western music: it is through the modes in which Gregorian chant was written, especially the Ionian mode, that the entire later system of tonality with which we are familiar came to be. Pure Gregorian chant is very rarely heard outside abbeys and some very conservative Catholic churches – a fact that makes its beauty and immense spiritual power when sung by the Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, France, all the more striking. Because Gregorian chant involves unison singing, it tends to sound simple, even minimalist, to modern ears; but in the voices of the performers heard on a pair of new Paraclete recordings, it also sounds positively angelic. Whatever one’s feelings about the divine, these CDs show the truth of Aldous Huxley’s on-point observation, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
For secular listeners and ones who are religious but not Catholic, there is little reason to choose one of the new CDs over the other, since the distinctions among the works on them lie largely in the chants’ liturgical purposes. There is also little reason to select only one of the discs: for an auditory experience quite unlike any other, with music suitable for everything from focused meditation to genuine spiritual seeking to calming background purposes, it makes perfect sense to have both recordings. Volume I contains material from the Liber Cantualis Mass plus Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament; several Chants to Our Lady; chants designed to be sung during Advent, at Christmas, during Lent, at Pentecost and at Compline (evening prayers chanted before going to bed for the night); and a Kyriale section including a Sanctus, Agnus dei, Credo, and two Kyrie chants. The contents of Volume II, taken from the Liber Cantualis, include Mass of the Angels; two chants each for Advent, Christmas and the Passion; one each for Easter and Pentecost; Benediction of the Holy Sacrament; and several Chants to Our Lady. Also on Volume II are an Antiphon and Benedictus from the Office for the Departed, and at the very end a lovely Hymn Te Deum of Thanksgiving. The effect of this music is exceptional no matter how secular our age: the beauties of Gregorian chant were intended to enhance and ease the connection of humans with the divine, and even today these chants encourage and invite inward looking, contemplation, thoughtfulness, and a kind of separation from mundane affairs that somehow makes it easier to return to everyday matters after spending time in an environment permeated by the masterful singing of the Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey in Solesmes.
Gregorian chant has been around so long that composers such as Giovanni Palestrina (c. 1525-1594), Orlando di Lasso (c. 1530-1594), William Byrd (c. 1539-1623), and Antonio de Salazar (1650-1715) were writing in distinctly later forms even when they created, respectively, the Gaude gloriosa, Surrexit pastor bonus, Ave verum corpus, and Salve Regina heard on a new Warner Classics CD. All these works have roots, directly or indirectly, in Gregorian chant, but all sound very different from what the Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey performs – even though the singers on this disc are every bit as skilled, adept and sweet-sounding in their own way. These performers are the members of the group called Chanticleer, whose new CD celebrates 40 years of the ensemble’s existence with a polyglot collection of 19 tracks whose oldest material is juxtaposed neatly (and a bit disconcertingly) with very up-to-date pieces indeed. Those include five Chanticleer commissions: Whispers by Steven Stucky (1949-2016); Stelle, vostra mercè l’eccelse sfere by Mason Bates (born 1977); Io son la primavera by William Hawley (born 1950); Jarba, Mare Jarba, a traditional Hungarian song arranged for Chanticleer by Stacy Garrop (born 1969); and Bei mir bist du shein by Sholom Secunda (1894-1974) as arranged by Brian Hinman (born 1978). The dates of the various composers and arrangers are instructive where this disc is concerned, because they show clearly just how wide the variety of music is that Chanticleer sings. And while the ensemble has a tone and a style that it brings to all the performances, it also has the ability to adapt the grouping and relative volume of its members so as to give a genuinely different feeling to the various pieces heard here. Now Is the Month of Maying by Thomas Morley (1557-1602) and Il bianco e dolce cigno by Jacques Arcadelt (1507-1568) date to roughly the same time and have some musical approaches in common, and hearing them one after the others makes eminent sense. But preceding the Morley with Nude Descending a Staircase by Allen Shearer (born 1943), and following the Arcadelt with the Bates work (which dates to 2009), requires a certain boldness bordering on the foolhardy. Chanticleer gets away with this sort of thing precisely because the group’s voices are so well-matched and its style is so smoothly elegant. All the works benefit from what may be called the Chanticleer touch, even the inevitable Summertime by George Gershwin (1898-1937). The remaining pieces here are Dúlamán by Michael McGlynn (born 1964), a setting of a traditional Irish song; Straight Street by James Woodie Alexander (1916-1996); I Have Had Singing by Steven Sametz (born 1954); and arrangements of three traditional songs. Those are I want to die easy; Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal; and Keep your hand on the plow. One of the most remarkable things about Chanticleer is that whether it is singing old-fashioned, not-too-far-from-Gregorian-chant Latin material, traditional spirituals, folk tunes, opera excerpts, or modern songs, its handling seems unerringly right, as if the members of the group have absorbed the music so thoroughly that their reproduction of it has the charm of inevitability. This new release offers only a very small part of the material that Chanticleer has sung and recorded over its four decades, but it is plenty to engage and please the group’s existing fans – and more than enough to bring Chanticleer a new and enlarged audience if people hearing the CD are encountering the group for the first time.