Hildegard von Bingen: Celestial Hierarchy (CD review)

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:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa