Various Artists

Le Chant des premiers chrétienes

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Chant of the Early Christians is an entry in Harmonia Mundi's Century series, a multi-volume guide to the entire history of Western music as accessible through its recordings. While not every volume of Century is as successful as this one, Chant of the Early Christians is unquestionably one of the best in the series. Part of what makes it so good is that all of the material comes from a single, consistent performing body, the Ensemble Organum under Marcel Pérès. One might note the unmistakable voice of Soeur Marie Keyrouz in some of these selections, simply explained by the fact that at one time Keyrouz was a regular member of Ensemble Organum.

The concept behind this collection -- "The Astonishing Diversity of Pre-Gregorian Repertories" -- is a slightly controversial one. The earliest, seventh century Gregorian repertoire -- about much we cannot know now -- was mainly captured in manuscripts that are neither legible or pitch accurate. By the time there was some value placed by scribes in capturing a chant melody in more than just its basic gestures and shape, the eleventh century process that transformed the first generation of Gregorian chant into something stricter and more universal in style had already begun. In the twelfth century, Rome began to lean on other churches to conform to the revised standard, and most were forced to comply, although an exception was made for the church of Milan, whose Milanese or Ambrosian chant was allowed to stand even as other species of homegrown chant were snuffed out. The Beneventan Chant of South Italian origin -- the "original" Ambrosian chant -- was already under pressure in terms of popularity versus Gregorian models in the eighth century, though ample manuscript sources dating from the tenth and eleventh centuries document its considerably smaller repertoire with some degree of comprehension. Far less lucky was the Old Roman Chant, surviving in four manuscript sources only; at one time this was considered synonymous, first-phase Gregorian literature that we are now lacking, though now it is seen as a parallel development unique to the Church of Rome before the revised standard took hold. Mozarabic Chant, easily the most exotic flavor of the four blends of chant found here, was observed by the church of Spain under Muslim rule; by the end of the eleventh century it was totally wiped out save for a few diehard churches in Toledo that simply wouldn't give it up.

There were yet other off-brand varieties of chant singing in the Western world that existed; certainly Greek and Slavonic churches never came under the Gregorian umbrella. However, to group such repertories under the heading of "pre-Gregorian" is not entirely accurate, as most were at least contemporary to the initial, lost, Gregorian repertory that evolved in the seventh century, and all of them reflect that literature in some way; it is like trying to comprehend a tree from the branches alone because the trunk is missing. In terms of instrumentation, ornamentation, and other aspects of interpretation, Ensemble Organum is highly creative and indulges in some degree of arranging. Nevertheless, every reading here is enthusiastically realized, highly energetic, and interesting; Chant of the Early Christians successfully projects the radical differences between these geographically distinct, incubatory forms of chant. Liner notes are minimal, so listeners will have to trust their own ears, or outside sources of information, to be able to glean the specifics on what makes these bodies of repertory unique. However, if one is looking for a guide to the various kinds of very early chant that fall outside the Gregorian compass, Harmonia Mundi's Chant of the Early Christians is easily the best option, not to mention engrossing and entertaining, attributes not commonly discussed in the context of chant recordings.

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