Friday, December 15, 2006

Chant Wars

I don't know how much scholarly credibility this has but the new CD called "Chant Wars" as sung by Sequentia and Dialogus sure seems like lots of fun. The idea was to present various Christian chant traditions from the 8th century before what we call the Gregorian tradition emerged as the leading tradition. So the CD contains sequences and tracts and other chants, sung in an unusually vigorous way. This type of material, which is speculative by its very nature, is probably not as informative and helpful for liturgy as an excellent sung liturgy by the Monks of Solesmes but it still has value if only to intensify one's own interest in the genre. The short clips on Amazon sound great.

Here is a review (which, interestingly, assumes that the major outlet for chant is coffee shops and chain stores!)

Following the dissolution of the Roman Empire, Christianity spread throughout Asia Minor, Africa, and Europe, filling the cultural and political vacuum that the empire had left in its wake. For the next three hundred years, manifold monasteries, convents, and dioceses sprouted and nurtured varied religious traditions, liturgies, and music based upon local customs and tastes. Following Charlemagne’s ascension to the throne on Christmas Day in 800, he moved to secure his position and consolidate the power of his benefactor (Pope Leo II) by unifying the myriad musical and religious traditions with those of Rome. The resulting clash and eventual integration of the local traditions with the Roman is the source of the “Chant Wars” presented on this disc.

The opening chant, appropriately, describes the story of St. Gregory taking dictation of the entire corpus of “Gregorian” chant from the divine piping of a celestial dove – a legend promulgated to lend a veneer of authority to the Carolingian cause. Another interesting non-liturgical tidbit is the inclusion of the lament on the death of Charlemagne, the only accompanied tune (with lyre). The remainder of the disc is mostly taken up by chants of the local and Roman traditions sung by varied vocal configurations. Several of the included pieces are apparently unique to this disc; they are not in even my multi-volume chant collections, to say nothing of the popular chant discs. Those that are more commonly found elsewhere (specifically “Collegerunt”, “Christus vincit /Laudes regiae”, and “Venite, populi”) are given top-of-class performances; the first two are now my preferred renditions, besting my old favorites with the Deller Consort on Chant Gregorien (Harmonia Mundi 195234) and the Cantori Gregoriani Mysteria (Membran International GmbH 223971), respectively. The “Venite” is sung a third higher and slightly faster than my current favorite, the Dominican Friars of the Province of France on Gregorian Chant: Dominican Liturgy (Jade/Milan Records, no number), adding a sense of urgency perhaps to the summons, but losing some mellifluousness in the process.

All of the pieces are sung with impetuous conviction and obvious relish – no soppy ethereal mood music here. Their ardent conviction reminds me of those musicologists at faculty Christmas parties who poke you in the chest while arguing the use of punctus divisionis verses augmentationis. These wild-eyed Early Music proselytizers may be tiresome dinner companions, but they sing a riveting chant. Some critics may quibble about the inclusion of women’s voices (pax St. Paul to the Corinthians), and the rather capricious variants in the Latin pronunciation. Tell them to quit poking you in the chest and go get a refill.

The SACD captures the voices and acoustics naturally and without undue artifice, although the relative acoustic perspective occasionally shifts disconcertingly within the soundstage from track to track. The CD layer compresses the soundstage and spaciousness surrounding the voices substantially, but the vocal/ambient balance remains natural and unobtrusive.

Warmly recommended to those who wish to explore chant beyond what is offered at national chains and coffee shops, audiophiles looking for a stellar performance on SACD, serious choral scholars and musicologists, and anyone else still reading this review.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: