18 December 2004

Review: A feather on the breath of God

bingenHildegard von Bingen was one of the greatest women of history. Born at the end of the 11th century and living into her 80s, Hildegard became Abbess of the nunnery at Bingen, but she was a person of many talents. Theology, music and poetry were amongst them, but she also became a famous woman of medecine and science, and as her fame grew she became advisor to kings and popes. She was also a talented brewer, and apparently the first person ever to add hops to beer. Then, perhaps because of the sexism of her society, and most of those since, she was largely forgotten until about 25 years ago, when her mystical writings started once again to become popular, followed by her music.

This is the CD that in 1982 started the Hildegard of Bingen musical revival, and still ranks amongst the finest early music CDs ever recorded. It's the perfect blend of superb music, performance and recording. It is apparently still the best-selling CD in the Hyperion catalogue, and one listen will tell you why.

I was entranced the first moment I put this on the CD player, and have remained so for the more than 20 years it has been in my collection. As my beloved Emma Kirkby's voice floats gently over the opening 'Columba Aspexit' I am transported to a better place. Okay, give me some literary license here--I really love this.

There seem to be two basic approaches to Hildegard's music. One is to sing it like a performance work, to increase the drama by emphasising the speech rhythm and exploring the dynamic range. The other is to deliver it in a more liturgical manner, with the emphasis on serenity and looking inward. The Gothic Voices in this CD favour the latter approach, and the other major Hildegard interpretors, Sequentia, seem to favour the former.

Which approach works best rather depends on the material, and Hildegard's corpus is vast. The material on this CD is very much liturgical, and the Gothic voices understated readings, focusing on phrase and melisma, work beautifully. Whilst Emma will always be the highlight for me, her associated artists are also of the highest calibre, in particular Emily van Evera (sop) and Margaret Philpott (alto).

I think Sequentia's more dramatic approach works well when they are recording Hildegard's more declamatory music, such as passion plays and so on.

'Feather on the breath of God' is a lovely sounding disk. There's a delicious ambience and space around instruments and voices, the stereo image is rock solid, and the voices are clear and articulate.

But ultimately what really makes this disk stand out is the music. Here is early music which sticks in your head, which you'll be humming and trying to remember in the shower. Astonishing stuff.Go to eebahgum!

[This article first appeared on epinions]

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