Gregorian Chant. Monks of the Desert, Monastery of Christ in the Desert. Sony Classical 88697 90204 2.
"...the kind of singing that we do calms the spirit and helps us live in peace with our world and with one another." --Abbot Philip Lawrence
Gregorian chant has always fascinated people, and you can find any number of recordings of it in the catalogue. Chant itself, traditionally a type of unaccompanied liturgical singing associated with the Catholic Church, has a long history, beginning with Pope Gregory in the Sixth century. It was he whom many early historians assigned credit for cataloguing and simplifying the music of the Church and after whom they named the particular kind of chant represented on this disc. Odds are, however, that Gregory had little to do with the chant we know today, which came to us mostly from centuries later. Chant does have the distinctions, though, of being among the earliest known music written out in the notation we recognize today as well as of being among the earliest examples of polyphonic music, that is, having two or more parts to produce a contrapuntal harmony.
Abbot Lawrence tells us in a booklet note that he and his Benedictine "Monks of the Desert" chose for this album to sing some of the selections because they were familiar to people, some because they were good examples of the music, and some because the monks had never done them before and just wanted to learn them. Fair enough.
About two-thirds of the music on the disc comes from the Catholic Mass. The other third come from devotional pieces, prayers for various occasions. Some of them will have titles familiar to most listeners, Catholic or not: "Kyrie," "Gloria," "Sanctus," "Agnus Dei," "Salve festa dies," the program ending festively with five "Alleluias." The songs represent the Mass, the seasons, and, at the end of day, acknowledgement of Mary as the Mother of God.
Of course, it all comes down to the singing, and if the Monks weren't good, we wouldn't be discussing them. There are, as I say, certainly enough other recordings of chant out there to satisfy any listener. But the Monks are superb, their voices sounding as one. Although the disc booklet does not list any of their names except Abbot Lawrence (they are, after all, a modest and humble group who obviously do not wish to draw attention to themselves rather than the music), there is a picture of them, and they appear to number about fifteen. Yet the fifteen men are of a unified expression, their voices combining into a single, mellow, soothing, and wholly calming meditation. Their singing is beautiful in the extreme, their articulation, phrasing, even their breathing precise yet emotionally expressive.
The Monks of the Desert are a remarkably talented group of men who have clearly spent a good deal of time perfecting their skills. While I mentioned that their voices combine into a wonderfully integrated whole, they are distinct enough individually, too, making the overall result quite effective in more ways than one. As a group of its kind, they are as good as it gets. The monks would no doubt say they offer their songs entirely in the praise of God; we can only thank them for the comfort their voices bring us.
Sony recorded the music of the disc between 1996 and 2010 at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, Abiquiu, New Mexico, and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Santa Fe, New Mexico. In both venues, the choir sounds pretty much the same, with the Music Festival acoustic perhaps just a tad drier. In either instance, though, the sound is full, rich, open, and reverberant, the voices well rendered in a spacious environment fully complementing the nature of the music.
As a side note, I measured my blood pressure before listening to the album and again an hour later at its conclusion. It was 126/80 at the beginning and 120/75 at the end. You think there's something to this relaxing effect of chant?
"It is always our hope that our singing will bring others to peace, inner tranquility and an appreciation of beauty. These values can help create a world in which peace and tranquility prevail." --Abbot Philip Lawrence
About the Author
I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.
When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.
So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.
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