Wednesday 1 July 2020

Seductively original, neither completely new nor completely old: The Red Book of Ossory from Anakronos on Heresy Records

The Red Book of Ossory; Anakronos; Heresy Records
The Red Book of Ossory
; Anakronos; Heresy Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 June 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Neither new nor old, contemporary re-interpretations of the medieva, setting lyrics from a 14th century Irish manuscript

The Red Book of Ossory is a Fourteenth Century manuscript from St Canice's Cathedral in Kilkenny (now housed in the RCB Library; a digitised version is available). It contains, mainly, copies of documents important in the administration of the diocese and is associated with Richard de Ledrede who was Bishop of Ossory (1317-1361). The diocese corresponds to the medieval Irish kingdom of Osraige, now County Kilkenny and western County Laois, with a cathedral based at Kilkenny. The book's name comes from the original colour of the binding.

Most notably, the manuscript also contains the texts of sixty Latin verses composed by Ledrede to be sung by the priests, clerks and choristers of St Canice's 'so that their mouths be not defiled with theatrical, foul and secular songs'. Ledrede did not put music to the hymns, instead he instructed the singers to provide suitable hymns.

Now, a new project has re-interpreted Ledrede's verses for a modern day audience. Heresy Records has released The Red Book of Ossory by a new ensemble, Anakronos, which blends medieval music, jazz and contemporary classical. Anakronos features Catriona O'Leary, voice, Deirdre O'Leary, clarinets, Nick Roth, saxophones and Francesco Turrisi, keyboards and percussion [The disc is released on 10 July].

Singer Catriona O'Leary has worked in both Early Music and traditional Irish song and these genres intersect with jazz and contemporary in these performances, as O'Leary has taken music from a variety of medieval sources to create the settings for Ledrede's texts, and around them Anakronos has woven a striking blend of Medieval, jazz and contemporary. (O'Leary did something similar on her 2014 disc, The Wexford Carols, see my review)

In many ways, Bishop Ledrede is not a very admirable figure for modern audiences. He was responsible for the witchcraft trial of Dame Alice Kyteler, composing a fantastical and nightmarish list of charges against her. Dame Alice ultimately escaped, but her servant, Petronilla de Meath became the first person in recorded history to be burned at the stake for the heresy of witchcraft, and the disc ends with an instrumental inspired by this The Burning of Petronilla de Meath

In her introduction to the songs, Catriona O'Leary talks about the Bishop's fertile imagination, so that the same imagination which compiled the exotic list of charges against Dame Alice also created these rather wonderful songs. The language is  lovely, with such lines as 'Mary bakes the bread of salvation, In the oven of her womb by mystic fire' and 'Solomon boarded the palanquin that was the Virgin's womb',

O'Leary also describes the process by which the songs were created, 'I have drawn from various medieval music sources, made speculative reconstructions of many of the bishop's hymns, and with my fellow band members have deconstructed those songs with learned disregard for proper chronology'.

There is a distinct whiff of other groups that are creative with medieval material about these pieces, and one thinks of the late David Munro and more recent groups such as Joglaresa, who bring a colourful, improvisatory feel to performance. One of the lovely things about the disc is the freedom of the music and the performances. The original medieval melodies are present and recognisable, yet treated with a flexibility and freedom which comes from the performers' traditional music and jazz backgrounds. In style the disc is somewhat sui generis, reflecting the varied backgrounds of the performers who have synthesised influences into something entirely original.

The handsome CD booklet includes not only Catriona O'Leary's essay, but full texts and translations and a short bibliography.

Detailed research might throw up enough information that we might be able to create speculative re-constructions of the original performances of these hymns, but I suspect that we might find the results a little bald, unless the cathedral in the 14th century had a particularly distinguished musical establishment. Instead, Anakronos has woven the music into something seductively original, neither completely new nor completely old.

The Red Book of Ossory
Anakronos (Catriona O'Leary, Nick Roth, Deirdre O'Leary, Francesco Turrisi)
Recorded 22-25 February 2019, Grouse Lodge Recording Studios, Co. Westmeath, Ireland
Released 10 July 2020

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