Oxford Camerata / Jeremy Summerly

Hildegard von Bingen: Celestial Harmonies

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Since the rediscovery of the remarkable twelfth century polymath Hildegard of Bingen -- poet, composer, artist, theologian, visionary, confidante of rulers and Popes -- her music has appeared on disc in a remarkably broad variety of interpretations, from those most sensitive to period performance practice to reconstructions that probably would have been unrecognizable to the composer. Her music has such strength, communicativeness, and universality that it retains its power even in some of the most unusual contemporary realizations. These performances by the Oxford Camerata, conducted by Jeremy Summerly, however, fall at the most austere end of the spectrum and apply the performance practices of cloistered plainsong to Hildegard's music. It's a valid approach that provides a bracingly plain version of the music, which in the absence of more detail in Hildegard's notation may or may not be "authentic," a quality that will forever be the subject of speculation. The philosophy of "when in doubt, do no harm," results in performances that follow the traditional liturgical convention of a solo voice being followed by a unison choir. Even in this plainest of presentations, with no drones, harmonies, or instrumental accompaniment, the eccentricity and originality of Hildegard's compositional voice is irrepressibly evident in most of these antiphons and responsories. Unconventional linear motion, such as melodies that rise from the root to the fifth to the octave, marks Hildegard as a true original; she is one of the earliest composers to have an easily recognizable "style." (Several selections, though, such as O successores, seem uncharacteristically conventional for the composer.) The singing is very straight and pure, and may seem bloodless to listeners accustomed to more expressive interpretations that allow the music to more directly evoke the ecstatic imagery of her poetry. For anyone interested in the most conservative interpretation of Hildegard's music, this CD should be of interest.

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