The title of this album from early music luminaries Sequentia may seem to imply a mystery solved: songs once lost, now found. But director Benjamin Bagby and his troupe would surely be the first to disavow this interpretation, for these 10th- and 11th-century songs can never be re-created with real accuracy -- the evidence is simply too sketchy in most cases. They can be brought to life through imaginative reconstruction and eloquent performance, however, which are precisely this ensemble's strong suits. Sequentia is probably most renowned for its explorations the religious music of the Middle Ages, particularly the works of Hildegard von Bingen. Here, the material is ...
The title of this album from early music luminaries Sequentia may seem to imply a mystery solved: songs once lost, now found. But director Benjamin Bagby and his troupe would surely be the first to disavow this interpretation, for these 10th- and 11th-century songs can never be re-created with real accuracy -- the evidence is simply too sketchy in most cases. They can be brought to life through imaginative reconstruction and eloquent performance, however, which are precisely this ensemble's strong suits. Sequentia is probably most renowned for its explorations the religious music of the Middle Ages, particularly the works of Hildegard von Bingen. Here, the material is secular, and some of the love lyrics unabashedly address the carnal pleasures of medieval life. You'll want to keep the English translations of the Latin texts close at hand while listening, especially in the series of songs about "Desire and Seduction" that bring the disc to a close. There's a surprising amount of sonic variety here, within the ensemble's basically spare means, comprising voices, lyres, harp, and flute among its four multi-talented members. The most appealing songs are even more unadorned, pairing the plaintive melody of a solo voice with a harper's embellishments. "Foebus abierat," in which a woman sings of a ghostly encounter with her dead lover, is a particularly affecting example of intensity conveyed with minimal resources, as is "Phebi clari," in which Bagby accompanies his own vocals on the lyre. There's a hypnotic effect to almost all of the selections, however, and Sequentia has crafted such a captivating program that it's not difficult to imagine that an authentic medieval minstrel is working his mesmerizing magic upon us.
All Music Guide
- James Manheim
With Lost Songs of a Rhineland Harper, Sequentia leader Benjamin Bagby continues his remarkable series of investigations of musical texts dating from the dawn of the European musical tradition. The album presents songs realized from a collection of texts, copied out a thousand years ago by Anglo-Saxon monks, with links to what is now Germany's Rhineland region. "Sequentia" in this case consists largely of Bagby himself, singing and playing a medieval harp or lyre; a few other musicians chime in. Interest in this recording among general listeners might well come from anyone who has ever wandered among the ruins of medieval architecture in western Germany and wondered what kind of society produced them. The great cathedral of Cologne dates from two centuries later than most of the music here, but it arose from the centralized power of Germany's "Holy Roman Emperors." Bagby presents the artistic culture of the area as a sophisticated, complex one; he writes of "the young clerical intelligentsia of those bustling river towns" as the audience for these secular Latin and medieval German songs. And he makes a convincing case. Lost Songs of a Rhineland Harper is divided into three thematic sections: "Songs of the Harp," "The Image of Dawn," and "Desire and Seduction." All three song types play subtly and fascinatingly off of classical and early Christian archetypes: the "Songs of the Harp" are informed by the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, for example, and the opening track, an eleventh century reworking of a passage from Boethius, is a remarkably compact encapsulation of the entire myth. The dual nature of the Song of Songs hung over Bagby's hypothetical harper just as heavily as it did over the Nashville country songwriters who a millennium later used religious imagery to communicate sexual meanings. It takes a little bit of work to follow the texts, but they are neither obscure nor dull. Several could be described as sexy, and the hilarious fable "Advertite, omnes populi," track 12, with its Boccaccian flavor, might tentatively be described as history's first cheating song. Where did the music come from? Almost no secular music survives from this period in musical notation. The short answer is that Bagby has mostly reconstructed it, following several models drawn from the worlds of plainchant and early sacred polyphony, paying special attention to the earliest hints of the notation of rhythm; he has also followed the thinking of earlier editorial compilers of this kind of music. The average listener will encounter a solo singer, transmitting a musical language rather like that of Gregorian chant, but more rhythmically marked in places, with accompaniment from one or more harps or lyres and sometimes a bone flute. At times, Bagby has two vocalists sing in harmony, which might be justifiable according to medieval sources but seems to contradict the inherently solo quality of the bardic harper. There are a couple of instrumental tracks. The album holds its own as music, but it demands engagement with the texts if you want to understand what's really going on. A note for German and French speakers: Deutsche Harmonia Mundi here follows the irritating practice of relegating some of the liner note material, in this case the text translations in those two languages, to a hidden track on the CD itself. Exactly how one is supposed to follow the texts while playing the CD is left unexplained.