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HILDEGARD von Bingen (1098-1179)
Ordo Virtutum (ca. 1150) [78:52]
Ensemble Belcanto/Dietburg Spohr
rec. October 2010, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main
ECM NEW SERIES 2219 [78:52]

Whichever way you slice it, this an odd CD. To start with, fans of Hildegard von Bingen, or fans of what they think they might expect to hear from Hildegard von Bingen based on past experience, need to be warned - this is more than likely not what you would expect to hear from an album dedicated to the music of Hildegard von Bingen.
 
Dietburg Spohr’s Ensemble Belcanto has already appeared on the ECM label, performing works by Wolfgang Rihm, Konrad Boehmer, Fabrizio Casti and Haim Alexander on ECM New Series 1739. With Belcanto’s reputation in new music you might not expect them to appear in a work from around 1150, but Dietburg Spohr is sensitive to the very real affinities between early music and some of today’s avant-garde. The original Ordo Virtutum is a morality play or liturgical drama, considered the earliest known to have a name author for both the music and the text.
 
The approach in this case is not a search for historical authenticity. In order to gain some kind of reference I had a listen online to the recording of Ordo Virtutum by Sequentia on the BMG label, and if you know this or perhaps the Vox Animæ recording on Et’Cetera KTC1203 then you will be wondering what on earth is going on with Ensemble Belcanto.
 
Ensemble Belcanto have embarked on a ‘creative interpretation’, one which Gerhard R. Koch’s booklet notes describe as being “based on respect and the faithful handling of the auratic composer and her presumed intentions. Precisely because her world is so distant and foreign, one must refrain from enfolding it in emotive sonic incense or from making it ironical. Experience with new vocal music is applied in this version, as is the endeavour to impart the Middle Ages - a kind of balancing act between the modern and the archaic which, in any event, does more justice to the work than a beautified halo. Dietburg Spohr activates the potential for contrast in Ordo in her arrangement, as if an imaginary Medieval composer had composed for a ‘bel canto’ ensemble.”
 
In other words, we get strange dissonances, atonal wandering accompanying lines which have a kind of plainchant texture but as if performed by singers looking for their notes rather than in possession of clarity of intent, bluesy parallel close-harmony, gasping and pain-ridden vocalisations, laughing and whistling, staccato jabbing features or repeating vowel sounds like flights of seagulls or a choir in search of a new production of Einstein on the Beach. Don’t expect any sublime revelation towards the end either, it just keeps on going. It’s all very strange and not without its own fascination, but pretty far removed from general expectations of medieval music. I wonder at the comment “one must refrain … from making it ironical”. To my ears there is plenty of irony to be found in the many incongruities in this performance, though with its deadly serious intent these little parcels of capriciousness may well be accidental. It’s hard to tell, which is perhaps part of the charm of the piece: perhaps Koch has been taken for a ride as well.
 
As with all such things, we have to ditch preconceptions and take these sounds at face value - as music for our times inspired by a rich and mysterious past. Like it or loathe it, this is an artefact which gazes upon the mists of time and refracts what little light emerges from that other country into something new and unique. It confounds our comfortable idea of what Von Bingen’s music might have sounded like or sought to express, or indeed the expressive means of those recreating her work in her own times and beyond.
 
I would be the last to want to put you off, but take care - if Mother likes a bit of Hildegard, this might not be the gift you want her putting on for a quiet evening around the tree next Christmas … and what would Sibyl of the Rhine make of it all? I suspect that, with an amused twinkle in her eye, she would say “you are all just crazy”, before turning back to her reading and making us all feel a bit silly.
 
Dominy Clements

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