Seraphic Fire’s new CD captures the beauty and mystery of Hildegard

July 02, 2021
By George Grella

Seraphic Fire. Hildegard von Bingen: Ordo Virtutum (SFM).

The first thing one notes about Seraphic Fire’s assured new recording of Hildegard von Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum is the sound. 

When von Bingen created this 12th century music drama, she could never have imagined any performance beyond ceremonial ones within her monastic community of nuns. Chapels and halls were their gathering spaces, the passage of time was marked by prayers, singing resonated inside a larger stillness. And that  sensation of intimate distance—depth and breadth—is captured here in the pure-toned chorus of “Introit for the Dedication of a Church.”

That space, the Sauder Concert Hall at Goshen College, Indiana, is part of the drama in this CD, which offers the world premiere of Ordo Virtutum in a “complete” version that includes Medieval liturgical text.

Patrick Dupre Quigley is the conductor, and musicologist Honey Meconi, a von Bingen expert, is credited as artistic advisor (she also wrote the informative booklet notes). Their conception has the voices moving from the back to the front of the sound field, a simple idea that replaces the sight of a ceremony with the sound of one. The transition from the “Introit” to the “Prologue” (and beyond), is marked by ringing crotales and the clear shifting in the presence of the sound. Before one’s ears, the performers enter the stage and then come toward the listener. The ear moves with greater attention to the speakers.

This is a drama of virtues—one translation of the title is “The Rite of the Virtues”—in which those virtues, like Faith, Chastity, Heavenly Love, and Mercy, led by Anima (mezzo-soprano Luthien Brackett) and Humility (mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski) are beset by the Devil (bass James K. Bass). While the chorus of assembled virtues sings without vibrato, the solo voices add touches here and there at the end of phrases, an emphasis that, even through the Latin, turns musical phrases into meaningful statements. There is a strong dramatic contrast, serious but with a playful sense of excitement, to the mellifluous lines from Brackett and Osowski, rising and falling with the pleasing naturalness of breathing, and Bass’s dastardly articulations. The Devil is charismatic as always, the Virtues commanding and unperturbable.

The Devil’s appearance is heralded by clicking stones, one of the expressive liberties that Seraphic Fire has taken with the original material. This is ancient music, and a huge part of performing von Bingen’s work is pulling together fragments and determining how to understand and translate her notation, which comes from an era that recorded the order of pitches but left rhythms and timings up to an interpretation that conformed to a general consensus long since lost. As Quigley explains in the booklet, the group gave most of the notes equal timing, but followed what seems to be an intuitive approach to adjusting rhythms for passages where the melodic and textual drama of the music called for that. This is monophonic music, but in key sections the singers divide into an octave, or sing a line against a drone. Quigley writes that these “were creative choices for this particular performance and are not indicated in the manuscript.”

As, this CD shows they were wise choices. The musical performances are skillful and polished—the nature of using a modern, professional ensemble for a piece that was made specifically for von Bingen’s peers and colleagues, no matter their musicality—and in interpretations of works like this, there’s always the danger of being too smooth, too glossy, turned into a sonic object without any of the force of meaning with which the work was first created. 

But the interpretive touches add surprises and mysteries—even knowing they are coming, the clicking stones remain odd and intriguing—and the rhythmic and harmonic variations drive the work through tension to a palpable feeling of finality. And as for the sound of the recording, the rich, clear resonance has every note of melody hanging in the air, a built-in backdrop of harmonic tension and releases that adds to the beauty of this CD, and the feeling of a clock pausing so one can hear and witness something important.


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