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  • Briefly Noted
  • Rick Anderson

Hildegard von Bingen. Komponisten & Mystikerin. Ensemble für Frühe Musik Augsburg. Christophorus CHR 77314, 2009 [1990].

Over the nearly three decades since her rediscovery by a music world recently intoxicated by all varieties of early music, the twelfth-century abbess, mystic, poet, and composer Hildegard of Bingen has retained her grip on the listening public's imagination. Enough is known about her life and career that her image can be fashioned to fit any number of musical and political agendas, but it is the richness of her melodic language and the passionate, devotional intensity of both her lyrics and her music that bring listeners (and record [End Page 409] buyers) back again and again. This CD, originally released in 1990 and reissued in 2009, places Hildegard's music in two imaginary contexts: first, as is sometimes but by no means always the case with modern interpretations of her compositions, they are occasionally accompanied by recorder, harp, and vielle (although instruments are often mentioned in Hildegard's writings as appropriate accompaniments to her vocal pieces, the notes they play are necessarily matters of conjecture and improvisation). Second, the pieces themselves are placed in the context of her contemporaries' work: her compositions are interspersed with songs by Peter Abelard (the Biblical plaint Planctus David super Saul et Ionatha and the hymn O Quanta Qualia) and a selection of anonymously composed examples of early Aquitanian polyphony taken from the St. Martial manuscripts in Limoges. These inclusions provide fascinating contrasts to Hildegard's work; Abelard's monody is more restrained and perhaps more melodically straightforward, while no less lovely; the Aquitainian songs are more robust and astringent in tone. The familiar Hildegard antiphons and responsorium that follow them to close the program leave the listener feeling soothed and uplifted. Women's and men's voices alternate and combine throughout, and the singing is all of the highest caliber.

John Ward. Consort Music for Five and Six Viols. Phantasm. Linn CKD 339, 2009.

Like so many of his deliriously talented, painstakingly trained, and passionately admired contemporaries at the turn of the seventeenth century, John Ward has fallen almost completely off the radar of contemporary musicology; although widely imitated in his day, his name is now virtually unknown, his entry in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians runs to barely 1,000 words, and some of the most basic facts about his life (and death) remain in dispute. It is true that his output was not very large, and that the lack of any court appointment during his career almost certainly helped to ensure his eventual obscurity, but to listen to the five-and six-part consort pieces on this ravishingly beautiful disc is to despair (yet again) at the cavalier and arbitrary ways in which fate distributes her favors of wide and lasting acclaim. Much of the credit for the attractiveness of this recording goes to the Phantasm ensemble, whose pleasure in this lush and seductive music is plain; they sound as if they are playing in the shade of a tree on a warm summer afternoon, their phrasing exact but languorous as they tease out the details of Ward's voice-leading and follow the winding paths of his chord progressions—notice, in particular, how long and teasingly he avoids the final cadence on Fantasia no. 1 a5, and the degree to which the ensemble has fun with that deferment of resolution. In addition to the fantasias, the program includes three In Nomine settings, which are characteristically darker and more stylistically backward-looking, but even these at times betray the sparkle of wit and originality that marks Ward's lighter works. It is difficult to find any significant flaws with this important and deeply enjoyable recording.

Anna Bon. La Virtuosa di Venezia. La Donna Musicale. La Donna Musicale LA 2010, 2010.

Anna Bon was born into a musical family, the daughter of Italian opera stars (one a singer, the other an in-demand set designer), though it is unclear both whether she was born in 1738 or 1740 and whether the birth took place in Venice, Bologna, or St. Petersburg. However, her musical pedigree is well established: she...


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