Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia (CD review)

The Monks of Norcia. De Montfort Music - Decca 002315302.

Ever since De Montfort Music released a recording of sacred songs performed by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles several years ago, the company has been turning out more and more such discs of religious-inspired tunes. Their latest project is from the Monks of Norcia, and, as anticipated, the singing is very good and the material very old and deeply ingrained in the Catholic faith.

Marian antiphons (pieces in a call-and-response style of singing) are a group of hymns in the Gregorian chant collection of the Catholic Church, sung in honor of the Virgin Mary. Here, the Monks of Norcia sing thirty-three such antiphons, including the four in most common usage for the past 700 years: "Alma Redemptoris Mater," "Ave Regina Caelorum," "Regina Coeli," and "Salve Regina." In addition, their repertoire embraces several previously unrecorded chant versions of responsories, plus a work originally composed by the singers.

The Benedictine Monks of Norcia are members of the Order of St. Benedict, and their monastery is in Norcia, Italy. The Monks take care of the spiritual, pastoral, and temporal needs of some 50,000 pilgrims from around the world who annually visit the birthplace of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica. And some of the monks sing in a choir, which is where we are here. The entire choir sing most of the pieces on the album, although smaller assemblies and soloists take on a few of the numbers, giving the program a good assortment of music that doesn't easily tire one out.

After a brief peal of the basilica's bells, the agenda begins with "Ave Maria... Virgo Serena." As with all of the selections on the program, it sounds cleanly enunciated by the monks, smoothly handled, and enthusiastically nuanced. My only quibble with the numbers is that most of them are so brief, one or two minutes apiece. Still, that can't be helped; these tunes have been around and sung for hundreds of years, and we have what we have, all of it very well rendered.

The Monks of Norcia
Favorites? Well, the four popular hymns I mentioned above, and also "Regali Ex Progenie" for the strength and fullness of the monks' voices; "Ecce Virgo Concipient" and "Tuam Ipsius Animam" for their refined solo and choir singing; "Gabriel Angelus" and "Concordi Laetitia" for their sweet spirit; and "O Gloriosa Domina" for its free-flowing melody.

Now, philistine that I am, I couldn't help wondering as I listened to this album what a mixed choir of the Monks of Norcia and the Benedictines of Mary might sound like. De Montfort, take note.

Grammy Award-winning producer Christopher Alder and engineer Jonathan Stokes recorded the music on location at the Monks' monastery in Norcia, Italy. As we might expect from a recording done on location in a church chapel, the sound is fairly reverberant. Not only do we expect it, we desire it. The setting helps transport us to the venue, the hall resonance every bit a part of the presentation as the singing itself. In any case, the room reflections are not so severe as to muffle any of the music, and, indeed, the ambient bloom actually enhances the tunes, giving the choir and soloists a rich, vibrant quality. The voices are clear, well focused, without sounding bright, forward, or edgy. In fact, the voices are warm and rounded, with a lifelike sense of depth to the choir, just as the monks might appear in a live recital. In other words, this is a fine, realistic recording of a choir in its natural environment.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa