Wednesday 28 October 2015

Vision: The Imagined Testimony of Hidegard von Bingen

Vision: The Imagined Testimony of Hildegard of Bingen @ St Paul's Church, Brighton - The Telling, 25 October 2015 - photo Robert Piwko
Vision: The Imagined Testimony of
Hildegard von Bingen

Clare Norburn & Leah Stuttard - photo Robert Piwko
Vision - The Imagined Testimony of Hildegard von Bingen; Niamh Cusack, The Telling, Celestial Sirens; Brighton Early Music Festival at St Paul's Church, Brighton
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 25 2015
Star rating: 4.5

Music and text combine in a highly evocative programme of Hildegard's music

As Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) continued its exploration of women in music inevitably nuns loomed large, the role of nun being one of the few open to medieval women. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was a highly significant figure in the medieval church, a powerful abbess, visionary, writer and musician. She was known as the sibyl of the Rhine. BREMF's Vision: The Imagined Testimony of Hildegard von Bingen at St Paul's Church, Brighton on 25 October 201 combined a narration written by Clare Norburn (co-artistic director of the festival) and spoken by Niamh Cusack, with Hildegard's music performed by The Telling (Clare Norburn and Yvonne Eddy sopranos, Leah Stuttard harp), and members of the Celestial Sirens.

Set in St Paul's Church, the rood screen and dressed altar formed a backdrop which combined with Natalie Rowland's atmospheric lighting to form a powerful setting with candles a big feature.

Niamh Cusack was off-stage providing the narrator as Hildegard's disembodied voice remembering events from the past. This took the form of a series of episodes rather than complete story, giving us an imagined glimpse of how Hildegard's life might have felt. Her sense of the sacred light (which came to her in her visions) was very powerful and formed a striking counterpoint to the music.

Vision: The Imagined Testimony of Hildegard of Bingen @ St Paul's Church, Brighton - The Telling, 25 October 2015 - photo Robert Piwko
The Telling & the Celestial Sirens - photo Robert Piwko
We had a wide selection of Hildegard's music (O Ecclesia, Ave generosa, O Pastor animarum, Couba aspexit, O virdissima virga, Studium Divinitatis, O pulcrae facies, O ignis spiritus, O frondens virga, Kartas habundat and the final processional from Ordo Virtutem), performed in a variety of ways from all singers in ensemble to solos from Yvonne Eddy and from Clare Norburn and even instrumental solos from Leah Stuttard. Something the music was unaccompanied and sometimes with Stuttard's harp, and she sang as well.

We have no idea of how Hildegard's music was performed, and the performers showed an interesting flexibility of style. The ensemble items were in quite a smooth, very plainchant inflected style whereas Clare Norburn in her highly involving solos brought out a greater sense of the vivid narrative in Hildegard's texts, with a more fluid almost folk-inflected style of performance.

By combining music and narration, we gained a clearer idea of the background to the music and the result was to explore the world of Hildegard's haunting chant. My only complain was that by singing her music in Latin and playing the piece with the audience in darkness, we were unable to understand the song text and it would have helped enormously to have the music performed in English.

This was another in BREMF's imaginative series combining music and drama into a striking whole which enables us to appreciate the music more and to put it into context. With powerful spoken testimony from Niamh Cusack and strong performances from The Telling we certainly came to appreciate Hildegard von Bingen's music in a new light.

Other BREMF reviews on Planet Hugill:

Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter - Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens, Brighton Festival Youth Choir

Elsewhere on this blog:

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