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Anon. El Cant de la Sibil - La: Mallorca -Valencia 1400-1560
Montserrat Figueras, La Capella Reial de Catalunya directed by Jordi Savall
ALIA VOX AV9806 [61:11]

The first thing that strikes one about this album is the absolutely beautiful digipak presentation. Someone at AliaVox has clearly thought about this as an entire package, and the result is like a lovingly presented miniature gatefold, complete with a thick (48 page - 5 in English, plus libretto and photos) booklet which can be accessed without having to risk destruction by removing it from a conventional jewel-box.

It would seem an introduction is in order, an issue which the notes by Maricarmen Gómez address only in passing, presumably because to a Spanish audience little introduction to the concept of this music is necessary. However, it appears that the Song of the Sibyl is the song of the Last Judgement, more of a genre than one particular song, developed anonymously, and which in Mediterranean countries dates back at least to the middle ages. The song, which appeared in many variations in different cultures, was regularly performed in cathedrals, used in processions, and was often a feature of Christ Mass day matins. The two versions on this release date from the mid-16th century, from the decades around the time when the song was suppressed in the aftermath of the Council of Trent in 1563, a result of "problems arising from the performances of the Sibyl, which are offensive to our Lord". According to the title the album spans 1400-1560, presumably because the music developed over this period, though some material dates from slightly later still. The ban was intermittently upheld, until performances were reinstated in the cathedral at Palma in 1692, where they continue there to this day. For various complex reasons some degree of reconstruction of this anonymous music been inevitable, such that the songs here should perhaps been taken as imaginative interpretations of the past, rather than strictly accurate historical re-creations.

The texts recount from different perspectives presumably Sibylline prophecy of what is expected to transpire on the day of Christ's Judgement of Mankind, the Mallorcan version concentrating with some relish on fiery torment and terror, the Valencian text looking towards the resurrection of the faithful and the 'deeds both good and ill of men…'

And what of the music? There are two substantial works. Sibil - La Mallorquina - Monastère des nonnes de La Concepció Palma de Mallorca, and Sibil - La Valenciana - Cathédrale de València, the first lasting almost 37 minutes, the second exactly 24 minutes. This is portentous music, not in any modern pejorative sense, but as in music laden with expectation, resolute in a solemn majesty. This is not classical music as later centuries would come to understand, but a music naturally arising from a mediaeval world-view of an unchanging, preordained universe which could only be resolved in the Last Judgement. As such this is absolute music, allowing no doubt or uncertainty, and therefore as confident, as implacable and timeless as the vast cathedrals in which it was performed. And there really is a sense of timelessness, for the slow, stately tempos barely vary, creating a sense of a world outside time, above and beyond our fragile reality. This is a fatalistic vision, not as in any 20th century nihilism, but arising from a certainty that the only sensible solution to life is to accept the inevitable. With an acceptance beyond joy or sorrow, this music becomes an almost purely architectural statement of belief, as beautiful and intimidating as the stone carvings and stained glass windows of a medieval cathedral. All is dominated by the extraordinarily rich and powerful voice of Montserrat Figueras, and yet the arrangements contain great musical-dramatic force in the almost celestially detached application of choir, bells, strings, trumpets and percussion to establish what just might be the most haunting apocalyptic sound you will ever hear. There is a still purity utterly alien to our time, yet this is a strangely thrilling, even exhilarating recording, for the music also has an intense drama so unfamiliar that although old, it feels very new. The ancient songs are filled with gravitas and wonder, and Figueras has the vocal clarity and projection, coupled with beauty of tone and shear passion, to send shivers down the spine. This is a recording which really does touch on that indefinable edge where musical expression becomes something transcendent and numinous.


Gary S. Dalkin


Gary S. Dalkin

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