Friday, 6 November 2020

Engaging breath of fresh air and, frankly, fun: Messe de... Carmina Burana from the Estonian ensemble, Hortus Musicus

Messe de... Carmina Burana; Hortus Musicus; ERP

Messe de... Carmina Burana
; Hortus Musicus; ERP

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 November 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
The Estonian Early Music ensemble takes an engagingly free-wheeling approach to sacred and secular music from the 14th century

This disc is such an engaging breath of fresh air and, frankly, fun. The Estonian early music ensemble, Hortus Musicus presents Messe de... Carmina Burana on ERP (Estonian Record Productions). The ensemble, artistic director Andres Mustonen, performs the 14th century Tournai Mass interleaved with songs from Carmina Burana.

Hortus Musicus was founded in Tallinn by Andres Mustonen in 1972 (in Soviet era Estonia), thus making it the oldest ensemble in Eastern Europein its field and one of the few so long-lived in the world. Their approach is freewheeling and whilst they are an Early Music ensemble they perform contemporary music too (their previous disc was of music by contemporary Estonian composer Peeter Vähi, see my review), with repertoire from 8th to 21st century, and from classical music to traditional music from across the globe. 

On this disc the music is performed by Andres Mustonen (violin), Anto Onnis (tenor, percussion), Tonis Kaumann (baritone, percussion), Riho Ridbeck (bass, percussion), Olev Ainomae (shawm, schalmei, recorders, crumhorn), Tonis Kuurme (curtal, rauschpfeiff, recorders, crumhorn), Valter Jurgenson (trombone), Imre Eenma (viola da gamba), Taavo Remmel (double bass) and Ivo Sillamaa (organ). And their approach is colourful, imaginative and engaging. They bring a whole range of colour and movement to the pieces, particularly the songs from Carmina Burana in a way which has somewhat gone out of fashion in Western performance practice. The intention is not so much careful recreation (whatever that might be, given how little we know of the originals) but to bring the music alive. And that they certainly do.

Hortus Musicus
Hortus Musicus

The intention of the disc is to emphasise the way the distinction between sacred and secular music was blurred at the time, despite the best efforts of the Medieval church. Not only did the music from different spheres influence each other, but there is a large body of sacred music based on secular melodies. And of course, sacred repertoire could vary from polyphony to lively pilgrims' songs.

On this disc, Hortus Musicus performs the Tournai Mass, the earliest surviving polyphonic mass cycle. It was usual, at the time, to compile musical settings of the Ordinary of the mass by movement so that you would group the Kyries together and the Glorias, and the priest would select one of each for the mass. The Tournai Mass is the earliest surviving manuscript to group the movements of the Ordinary as a complete mass setting. It is an assemblage, stylistically the music ranges over around 50 years and clearly someone selected a set of movements and a scribe wrote them up as a complete set. The music comes from 14th century France, but the manuscript was found in the 19th century in the library of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Tournai. (The city has a complex history, it is now in Belgium, but at the time the manuscript was created the city was part of France and would spend periods held by the English, the Holy Roman Emperor and as part of the Spanish Netherlands.)

Carmina Burana is perhaps the most important source of medieval Latin secular poetry. It is a collection of 254 texts found in a manuscript which was discovered in the 19th century in the Benedictine monastery in Benediktbeuern, Switzerland (Carmina Burana is simply the Latin for songs from Benediktbeuern). These are songs written by students and clergy across Europe, mostly bawdy, irreverent and satirical, though some are serious. The manuscript seems to have been written in southern Bavaria, though the exact location is still disputed, and how the manuscript got to Benediktbeuern  is unknown. It is an important testament to the liveliness of the popular culture of the wandering scholars of the period (Helen Waddell's book The Wandering Scholars is still a good introduction and it is well worth trying to get hold of a copy of the Folio Society's 1982 book Songs of the Wandering Scholars which interleaves Waddell's book with her own translations of the lyrics). About a quarter of the songs have music in the manuscript.

So here we have eleven songs from Carmina Burana interleaved with the six movements of the Tournai Mass, Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite missa est (two movements). The group's approach to the mass is relatively sober, simply three voices Anto, Onnis, Tonis Kaumann and Riho Ridbeck supported by organ and continuo. But in Carmina Burana they are more free, after all only the melody survives, and each song is enlivened by a great deal of colour and movement, moving between almost chant-inspired to more popular dance rhythms, and in some of the later ones the arrangements seem to bring in all manner of later, seemingly anachronistic references including an amazingly jazz-inspired 'Tempus transit gelidum'.

But it works, the performers' sheer élan and enthusiastic engagement with their material comes over and the same enlivening vivacity links the sacred and the secular music. And the contrast between the different movements provides for a satisfying listening programme. There are excellent liner notes which explain some of the background to the music and what we are listening to. But texts are given only in Latin 

There is room in the library for scholarly reconstructions of this music, but I enjoyed this disc for its freewheeling vivacity, its sense of engagement with the music and the text, and for the sheer sense of fun. Listening to the disc it is possible to imagine the wandering scholars entertaining themselves with this music as well as wandering into mass.

Messe de... Carmina Burana
Tournai Mass
Carmina Burana (selection)
Hortus Musicus (artistic director Andres Mustonen)
Recorded 18-20 May 2020 in Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn
ESTONIAN RECORD PRODUCTIONS ERP 11720 1CD [54:08]

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