Saturday, August 16, 2008

In Mulieribus

A vigorous liturgical music program is often assisted by related singing groups in the area that provide non-liturgical outlets for singing, and In Mulieribus is a case in point. Some are members of Cantores in Ecclesia in Portland, Oregon, while others are not. This is a non-liturgical choir that gathers together to explore music that is religious and largely unknown early polyphony but is rarely used in Mass or other liturgy. It is a women’s ensemble and hence the name. The CD they have produced of their work—Notre-Dame de Grace—is nothing short of spectacular.

Sometimes I think we develop a supposition that early-music ensembles of women will sound beautiful but maybe a bit wispy with inhumanly long phrases with little harmonic variation--perhaps a bit remote for our ears.

This supposition vanishes from the very first track: Salvatoris hodie. It begins with great energy and intense rhythmic exploration. We are immediately told that these women believe very strongly in what they are doing. The performance is virtuosic, the tuning flawless, and the acoustical environment of the recording just great. It is immediate and intimate. I can imagine that the rehearsals were very intense and detailed but the final result sounds like unfettered joy—a very difficult effect to achieve but these are masters of the craft.

From a historical and musical point of view, what this CD fills in is the gap between chant and Renaissance polyphony. It can be easy to forget that that distance is about 500 years when organum, clausula, and early motets were enormously popular. Their musical tools were not as elaborate as those possessed by Palestrina and Byrd but that hardly matters. The music of the Notre Dame school has integrity all its own, with tight harmonies and thrilling compositional genius at work.

This music is not for amateurs. It requires a level of specialization that I can’t imagine could ever make it parish viable. But that makes this recording all the more valuable: you aren’t like to discover this music otherwise.

ou hear the subtle use of quick diminuendo and the pulsing rhythm, with constantly alternating between legato phrasing and vocal pulses to give the music energy. They have resisted the temptation to render this music with wild improvisation stemming from unsupported imaginings of what this music must have sound like. They let the beauty speak for itself, and use their voices only as the vehicle. There is no accompaniment, which makes for a very brave and compelling vocal performance.

I know that you will like this CD, and it will help you get to know some of the heritage of music that has been largely closed to us. After yours arrives, you might enjoy moving right away to the glorious Ave Maria on track 8, which offers many interesting surprises that I won’t spoil in this review.

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