Out with the old, in with the new: this familiar adage can well apply to what happened to so-called Old Roman chant when the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy got underway in 1305; the seat of the Holy Roman Empire moved from Rome to Avignon for a period of 72 years. During this time, a reform in clerical singing that had been making its leisurely way over a period of two centuries was ramped up in intensity; the Gregorian style of chant singing -- which stressed uniformity and was a hybrid of Roman and Gallic traditions -- was used to replace a number of practices perceived as errant and anti-ecumenical. Ironically, one tradition so displaced was that of the Church of Rome itself, though some churches -- mostly in south of what is now modern Italy --simply refused to throw out the chant books they had already used for centuries. Four such volumes have come down to posterity, and the earliest of these, dated to 1071 (CH-CObodmer C74, now in Geneva) provides the repertoire for Zig Zag Territoires' Chant de L'Eglise de Rome, VIe -XIIIe Siècles, featuring the formidable talents of Ensemble Organum under Marcel Pérès.
Ensemble Organum has visited this territory before, famously with one of its first recordings, also titled Chant de L'Eglise de Rome, for Harmonia Mundi in 1985. Whereas that disc was a selection of individual pieces from the Old Roman chant repertoire, this one contains material all related to vespers; three mass propers and -- surprise! -- fragments of the mass ordinary, something not thought to have survived in Old Roman chant. The importance of the propers and special sequences devoted to local saints in certain churches was the main reason any of this repertory was saved at all. Nevertheless, the Messe du jour is fragmentary indeed, consisting of a Kyrie and Alleluia only and filled out with an introit, the gradual Viderunt Omnes, and the opening of the Gospel of St. John delivered by Lycorgos Angelopoulos as a long solo piece.
However, as a whole, Zig Zag Territoires' Chant de L'Eglise de Rome, VIe -XIIIe Siècles is magnificent and miles ahead of its predecessor in terms of Ensemble Organum's grasp of the material and the overall ensemble dynamics, which have been refined like a ground glass lens in the 24-year interregnum between this release and the previous one. While in Gregorian chant, ornamentation is only indicated -- and not always even used -- Old Roman chant notation is quite specific on the subject. The result sounds vaguely Arabic, and the presence of specific ornaments in Old Roman chant adds credibility to the notion that such singing was the common heritage of Western, Middle Eastern, Greek Orthodox, and Coptic rites in the Middle Ages; surviving in all traditions save the first. It moreover has a darker and more "gothic" sound than Gregorian chant and Ensemble Organum does a great job of dressing it up, adding drones, assigning solo passages to singers well suited for them, and even throwing in a snatch of polyphony here and there. To some ears, it's terrific, but it's not for everybody, and there is the need to qualify; after all, this is a whole disc of chant, not Wagner, and while it is highly melodic, it is also static music. Nevertheless, for Old Roman chant -- some of the oldest music we can still hear -- this is as good as it gets.