Benjamin Bagby, Sequentia. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88765468642.
Everything seems to go in cycles, and what’s popular one day may not be as popular the next. For instance, after Mahler died, his music generally fell out of favor with the public until the Fifties and Sixties when the stereo/hi-fi era began and conductors like Leopold Stokowski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, John Barbirolli, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Leonard Bernstein, and Georg Solti revived audience interest. In the Seventies we had a renaissance in Chant; in the Eighties and Nineties we got a renewed interest in period instruments; and so on. Today, we seem to be in an age of the Singing Nun, with various groups like the Benedictines of Mary producing chart-busting albums. It appears to be an appropriate time, then, for the early music ensemble Sequentia to release the final album, Celestial Hierarchy, in their series of discs containing the complete works of the medieval abbess, writer, philosopher, poet, and composer Hildegard von Bingen.
Sequentia made this ninth and concluding entry in their survey of Hildegard’s work exactly thirty years after their first album in the run, which they made back in 1982, all of them for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. That’s both dedication and staying power. And releasing this final disc at a point where the meditative music composed or sung by women is so much in the public eye shouldn’t hurt sales.
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), also known as Saint Hildegard of Bingen and Sibyl of the Rhine, was something of a jack-of-all trades. As I mentioned above, she was a German writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and intellectual. Her fellow nuns elected her a magistrate in 1136; she founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg and Eibingen in 1150 and 1165 respectively; and scholars consider one of her works, the Ordo Virtutum, an early example of liturgical drama and perhaps the oldest surviving morality play. Beyond her many volumes of visionary theology, she wrote a variety of musical compositions for use in liturgical services, which is what Sequentia have now addressed in their nine albums documenting Hildegard’s work.
Sequentia as currently constituted comprise seven female singers: Lydia Brotherton, Agnethe Chritensen, Esther Labourdette, Sabine Lutzenberger, Christine Mothes, Elodie Mourot, and Lena Susanne Norin; plus two instrumentalists on select numbers: Norbert Rodenkirchen, flutes, and the group’s cofounder Benjamin Bagby, harp. Mr. Bagby and the late Barbara Thornton founded the group in 1977, and even though with the exception of Bagby the performers have changed over the years, they perform together as if they had been doing it all their lives; that is, heavenly.
The music on Celestial Hierarchy represents the hymns Hildegard devoted to the angels, patriarchs, prophets, martyrs, and confessors, as well as John the Evangelist and Mary the Mother of Jesus. That was the "celestial hierarchy" she celebrated. Praising God in word and song was an important part of Hildegard's worship, a practice she believed allowed her to reconnect with her origins and achieve a state of self-realization. The present album contains ten numbers (a little over seventy minutes) representing the devotions of her theology, a collection of antiphons (psalms, hymns, or prayers sung in alternate parts) and responsories (anthems sung after a portion of sacred writing by a soloist and choir alternately).
The songs float radiantly above us, sweet and ethereal, and Sequentia perform them with exquisite care and precision. However, I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Hildegard of Bingen’s music as I am about Sequentia’s performance of it. Hildegard's venerations of the Saints can begin sounding a bit the same after the first few items, and over an hour of them can become tiring to a novice like me. What's more, Sequentia use instrumental accompaniment, flute and harp, quite sparingly and only on three of the ten selections. I would advise a word of caution, therefore, upon entering these waters: If you are already a fan of Hildegard's work, you will find no better a collection of her music than the present disc; but if you are new to the genre, you may find yourself wondering if it isn't too much of a good thing. Nevertheless, since when is too much of something good ever a bad thing? I'd further advise the first-time listener to begin with track six, "O Victoriosissimi Triumphatores," with its lovely harp accompaniment.
Producer and engineer Nicolas Bartholomee recorded the album at the Church of Saint Remigius, Franc-Waret, Belgium in November, 2012. The acoustic is open and airy, very much like the large church-cathedral it is, with plenty of ambient air in the resonant venue. Voices are miked at a moderate distance for ultimate realism, and while they can sound perhaps a touch bright and ringing at times in this setting, they are reasonably rich and clear.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: