Thursday 2 December 2021

Unsung Heroine: The Telling in music of Hildegard of Bingen and troubadour songs

Unsung Heroine & Vision; The Telling; First Hand Records

Unsung Heroine
& Vision; The Telling; First Hand Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 December 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Created as sound-tracks for films made during lockdown, these recordings have now become an expressive testament to the art of a much-loved performer

During the Summer of 2020, The Telling made films of two of Clare Norburn's concert plays, Vision, about the life and music of Hildegard of Bingen, and Unsung Heroine, about the life of the woman troubadour Beatriz de Dia. The group made the films because they could, having toured both works in 2019 and early 2020, and faced with lockdown, filming was something that became possible [see my interview with Clare Norburn]. For the sound-tracks of the films, the group made studio recordings. The films were issued, on the group's website during 2020. And that was it.

Unfortunately, the singer Ariane Prüssner, who featured in many of The Telling's performances, died from lung cancer in May 2021. Having these recordings was an unexpected legacy, and so they have now been released on disc, partly as a memorial to Prüssner who sings in both works. Issued on First Hand Records, the disc features performances of the music from Unsung Heroine: The Imagined Life and Love of Beatriz de Dia and Vision: The Imagined Testimony of Hildegard of Bingen performed by The Telling -  Clare Norburn and Ariane Prüssner (voice), Jean Kelly (medieval harp), Joy Smith (medieval harp, percussion),  Giles Lewin (vielle, bagpipes).

It should be emphasised that these are not the concert plays themselves, but the musical aspect. For Vision we have a series of sacred works by Hildegard of Bingen, including ten pieces from Symphonia armoniae celestrium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations) her cycle of over 70 liturgical songs. These are performed by Prüssner and Norburn with just the harp of Jean Kelly. For Unsung Heroine we have songs by troubadours both male and female, including one by the heroine of the play Beatriz de Dia along with others. For some songs, melody lines exist, for others the performers have had to borrow the music. And they are performed by Prussner and Norburn, with harp and percussion from Joy Smith, and vielle and bagpipes from Giles Lewin.

There is much that is speculative here, we know little that is certain about Beatriz de Dia and the work of the troubadours does not survive in a form that allows us to reconstruct with certainly, sometimes only texts survive and sometimes there is a melody line. That's it. For Hildegard we have more certainty about her life, yet her music continues to remain elusive. We don't quite know how it was performed, and the modern tradition of including instruments comes, to some extent, from the fact that at the time we know instruments were used, partly because the Church thundered against them so frequently.

For this disc, the musical decisions are partly practical. These are the sound tracks to concert plays which were intended to be performed by a compact group of performers - Vision can be performed with just two singers, harp and actor, though I heard it at Brighton Early Music Festival performed with more lavish numbers of singers. Also, Norburn explains in her booklet note that the musical text was trimmed slightly for the film.

What really counts, though, is the long performance experience that Norburn and Prüssner bring to this music, both in their careers in general and performing these works on tour with The Telling. The results are engaging and engaged, stylistically consistent and highly communicative. With Hildegard's music all three performers bring a sense of spirituality to the music, yet it is clear that both Norburn and Prussner are concerned with the words too. This is not just about beauty of tone and lovely line, there is a real speaking quality to the performances, and for me the disc works wonderfully as an object in its own right.    

With Unsung Heroine the approach is similar, quite stripped down and perhaps not as technicolour as some modern versions of troubadour music. Yet the performers bring that feeling for the words, the speaking tone and the sense with might be eavesdropping on a real performance. Here we have a greater variety of material from the slow and poignant to lively dance numbers, and even instrumental numbers such as an Estampie and a Saltarello. The faster numbers all have a lovely sense of expressive rhythm, and whenever the singers are present we feel that the words and their rhythms really count.

This disc is a lovely tribute to a much missed singer, but it is also a great testament to The Telling's art and a very satisfying recital.

Sound tracks to
Vision: The Imagined Testimony of Hildegard of Bingen [33:39]
Unsung Heroine: The Imagined Life and Love of Beatriz de Dia [40:58]
The Telling (Clare Norburn, voice, Ariane Prussner, voice, Jean Kelly, harp, Joy Smith, harp & percussion, Giles Lewin, vielle & bagpipes)
Recorded at St Mary Magdalene, Paddington, 8 July 2020 and Holy Trinity Church, Straud Green, 3 August 2020

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