The title of this collection of eleventh and twelfth century sacred song, Hildegard von Bingen: Composer & Mystic, is misleading since less than two-thirds of the album is devoted to Hildegard's music. The rest is given to music by Peter Abelard and from anonymous sources. Taken as a purely musical experience, the album has much to commend it. The performances by the vocal and instrumental quartet Ensemble für Frühe Musik Augsburg are attractive and skillfully sung and played, and the selections are nicely varied in content and arrangement. Listeners' appreciation for the CD will most likely hinge on the importance they place on informed historical performance practice, because as appealing as the performances are, most have little relationship with the music as it would have been heard by its original audiences. The performers take from the period performance movement the general principal that the notation of music of certain eras is an incomplete and sometimes imprecise guide, and that the music can best be brought to life through the informed musical imagination of performers. In most of the pieces on this album, though, the performers have consciously chosen to ignore details of what is known about the music, and let their musical imagination, rather than historical accuracy, inform their interpretive decisions, with variable results. Hildegard's antiphons and hymns were written for women's voices, but their musical impact is not diminished when they are sung by men, or even a mixed ensemble. Abelard's setting of David's lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, on the other hand, was set as a solo, a private expression of deep personal grief, so it makes no sense, historically, dramatically, or musically, to turn it into a dialogue between a baritone and a countertenor. Also, the sources used are not the earliest available, but later, edited versions. With some caveats, the CD would make a fine listening experience for someone looking for an appealing general introduction to early music that has more variety than monophonic plainsong, but it could raise the hackles of purists.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins