Various Artists

La Musique de l'Antiquité

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Harmonia Mundi's Century series is a highly ambitious and potentially very useful survey of 30 centuries of Western music included in 20 volumes. If the math on that does not quite work out for you, it should be qualified by saying that the literature is bereft of first-hand musical sources for the first 18 of those centuries. The first volume, La musique de l'Antiquité (Music of the Ancient World), represents attempts to reclaim the mostly lost musical heritage of the Ancient Greeks, Hebrews, and the pre-Roman church of Gaul. These are presented along with music from ancient times that have survived through tradition and some measure of primary sources -- that of Byzantium and the Melkite Christians of Syria.

Ancient Greece is represented in the reconstructions of Conrad Steinmann from his Harmonia Mundi album Melpomen. Steinmann decided to eschew the pathetic and widely ranging scraps of music that survive from Ancient Greece to build something up from scratch, utilizing rebuilt instruments, the numerous theoretical treatises that exist, and lyric texts from the time. The result seems remarkably successful, coalescing with the atmosphere and sense of Ancient Greek music-making that one encounters in old literary texts; these performances likewise benefit from the lovely singing of Arianna Savall. Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura's "reconstructions" of ancient Biblical music are another matter. Haïk-Vantoura utilized the cantillation signs in the Torah intended to facilitate sung recitation of Biblical passages to create arrangements she claimed represented the ancient music of the Bible. Cantillation signs are sung differently by every culture within Judaism and to some extent, their interpretation is unique from rabbi to rabbi; they were never intended to represent strict musical notation. Far from presenting any actual "music" of David and Solomon, these reconstructions come off like a very conservative brand of typically French Hebrew service music, no more ancient than Darius Milhaud's Service sacre pour le samedi matin. However, Haïk-Vantoura's lifework is taken seriously in some quarters, and so its inclusion here is not surprising, especially as she recorded for Harmonia Mundi. One should approach this part of La musique de l'Antiquité with extreme caution concerning the extent to which it represents antiquity.

This is followed by a lengthy selection of Soeur Marie Keyrouz's interpretations of Byzantine and Melchite chants. For the Byzantine church, a large amount of authentic music is extant though not in sources earlier than the medieval period. Melchite, or properly Melkite, chant refers to Syriac Christian service music quite similar to the Byzantine rite, though significantly different in certain details; likewise, extant Melkite manuscripts are of medieval origin. Whatever may be the sources of the music she sings, Keyrouz is strongly authoritative in the traditional interpretation of Arabic Christian music and her voice is a joy to behold. Although not as "beautiful" to listen to as Keyrouz, Iegor Reznikoff contributes an Alleluia and Offertory belonging to the Gallican rite, a pre-Roman type of chant common to the Frankish church of Gaul and outlawed in the eighth century. Much of what survives of this music is found in Ambrosian and Mozarabic sources and this is probably the oldest authentic music on the disc.

La musique de l'Antiquité does not so much reflect history as it does the state of the scholarship; in the instances of Haïk-Vantoura and Reznikoff it is scholarship more than a little outdated in the twenty first century. The earliest complete, comprehensive, and fully readable manuscripts of music date no earlier than the ninth and tenth centuries, just slightly before the beginning of the medieval period. Any interpretation of music alleged older than that is going to be in the domain of reconstructions, projections, assumptions, and in some cases outright quackery and all of that is in evidence here. While handsomely designed, Harmonia Mundi's slim booklet is cluttered and unhelpful; slightest attempt at contextualizing the material is made and the package as a whole does not include a proper track listing. The other volumes in the Century series look a lot more promising than this one; unless one wants them all, or can approach its content with a big grain of salt, then La musique de l'Antiquité really should be avoided.

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