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J. F. Weber
Fanfare, November 2008

the first disc collection of Hildegard since the explosion that occurred on her anniversary, offering less familiar pieces, an excellent approach to solo performance practice, and antiphons framing psalms.

To read the complete review, please visit Fanfare online.

Vivien Schweitzer
The New York Times, July 2008

Von Bingen, a 12th-century abbess who was the 10th child of an aristocratic family, boldly founded her own convent at Rupertsberg, where the well-to-do sisters were criticized for their fondness for jewelry and other worldly pleasures. The music of von Bingen, who was also a poet, a playwright, a theologian, an author of treatises on natural history, an adviser to local male luminaries and a visionary (whose hallucinations were probably provoked by migraines), was rediscovered in the early 1980s. Her works have been frequently recorded since, with a spate of recordings in 1998, the 900th anniversary of her birth.

Jeremy Summerly conducts the Oxford Camerata in this new disc, featuring responsories and antiphons from von Bingen’s “Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations,” a collection of 77 songs and one music drama completed around 1150.

The eight monophonic selections are set to von Bingen’s colorful texts and addressed to groups and individuals including (among others) the Creator, the Redeemer, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St John the Evangelist and Martyrs. The excerpts are excellently sung here, with elegantly shaped phrasing and subtly nuanced inflections, by two alternating groups of four women and four men. The contrast between the male and female timbres breaks the occasional monophonic monotony of the plainsong genre.

The singers reflect both the music’s sensuality and its spirituality. The women in particular are notable for their well-blended sound and pure voices, which soar rapturously but with appropriate decorum in the slightly reverberant acoustics of the Chapel of Hertford College, Oxford, where the disc was recorded.

Robert Baxter
Courier-Post, June 2008

Bavarian composer Simon Mayr was centered in the Northern Italian city of Bergamo, which in the early eighteenth-century enjoyed a reputation as sort of “little Vienna,” reflecting the cultural thrust of what was then the center of the universe as far as the arts in Europe were concerned. Mayr’s contribution to Italian opera was critical—although by the 1820s he represented a relatively conservative viewpoint; he is credited with shepherding the transition from classical-styled opera to Romantic melodrama in Italy. Mayr is also notable as the teacher of composer Gaetano Donizetti, who only outlived his master by three years. The two works featured on Naxos’ Simon Mayr: L’Armonia (Dramatic Cantata) are not operas but secular cantatas, a genre to which Mayr contributed more than 60 occasional pieces. Owing to its topicality, Mayr’s Cantata for the Death of Beethoven would prove of especial interest to Beethoven enthusiasts.

Stephens Eddins, June 2008

Her music has such strength, communicativeness and universality that it retains its power even in some of the most unusual contemporary realizations. These performances, by the Oxford Camerata, conducted by Jeremy Summerly, however, fall at the most austere end of the spectrum, and apply the performance practices of cloistered plainsong to Hildegard’s music. It’s a valid approach that provides a bracingly plain version of the music, which in the absence of more detail in Hildegard’s notation, may or may not be “authentic,” a quality which will forever be the subject of speculation.

The singing is very straight and pure, and may seem bloodless to listeners accustomed to more expressive interpretations that allow the music to more directly evoke the ecstatic imagery of her poetry. For anyone interested in the most conservative interpretation of Hildegard’s music, this CD should be of interest.

Mark Sealey
Classical Net, June 2008

It is paradoxical music in some ways. Hildegard’s own life was not that of the frugal, austere nun. Rather, it was an ostentatious one, which addressed the needs of an elite. So her music combines sensuality with devotion, beauty with faith, belief with an appealing lack of caution. The twin challenges for singers are that they not enter too wildly into this rapture: it was carefully contrived. Nor that they draw the emotional teeth of what is nevertheless free and persuasive music.

The Oxford Camerata was founded by Jeremy Summerly almost 25 years ago. Celestial Harmonies is proof that they easily have the measure of these dangers. The singing here is focused, controlled—almost reserved—yet full of delight and animation without approaching abandon. Their style is certainly reflective without being cautious or downbeat. Celestial Harmonies should join the list of about a dozen and a half CDs which contain music exclusively by Hildegard. It will suit specialist and curious collectors of mediaeval choral music alike.

This successful performance by the Oxford Camerata and Summerly remains grounded in the substance of adoration without overdoing awe or submissiveness. They achieve this by articulating each phrase in a concrete manner, and not lingering; by not trying to ‘overblow’ the vowels, and by underplaying climaxes. But never to the extent of making Hildegard’s lines and textures either dull or lacklustre.

The recording is clear, intimate and has just enough atmosphere to add to the beauty and depth of the music. Summerly’s liner notes are short and to the point; the full texts are there in Latin and Summerly’s own English translations.

A splendid contribution to Hildegard’s growing discography by singers who know the field too well to falter. They are led by a conductor prepared to stamp a twenty-first century personality on music almost a thousand years old and stand by his results. The results are quite in keeping with the composer’s intentions.

David Vernier, June 2008

We remember Hildegard if nothing else for her 1980s “revival”, or perhaps from Anonymous 4’s hit 1997 recording featuring “Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula” (with the provocative title 11,000 Virgins). Her writings, her prophecies and visions, her poetry and music, and her founding and nearly 30-year leadership of the convent at Rupertsberg established Hildegard as one of the more remarkable and influential figures of her time; the question today is how to best present her music—long sequences of unison chant—which of course was intended for worship and prayer, not for “performance”. Some have answered that question by arranging the melodies—for string quartet (Kronos Quartet), brass ensemble (Empire Brass), solo voice and cello (Matt Haimovitz, Eileen Clark)—or even “reworking” them with added percussion, whistles, electronic sounds, and cellos (Richard Souther).

Some performers seek authenticity by employing only female voices, but there is good evidence that her music also would have been sung during her lifetime by men. So this program, its selections taken from Hildegard’s collection of 77 “poetical-musical” works known as Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the harmony of celestial revelations) and presented in their original, unadulterated form (no whistles, cellos, or tubas!), takes a very sensible and listener-friendly route: the eight responsories and antiphons alternate between one group of four women and one of four men. The contrast of timbres from track to track is a nice effect, and thanks to some very well-matched and impressively well-practiced voices, the inflections, phrasing, and even the smallest nuances of textual emphasis achieve the desired uniformity while retaining the interesting tonal character of four combined voices. (We shouldn’t be surprised at the high level of technical and musical accomplishment demonstrated here—a glance at the list of singers reveals several of Britain’s finest, most experienced and versatile choral musicians.)

Oxford’s Chapel of Hertford College proves to be an ideal venue for this pure, unadorned, unaccompanied vocal music, and Jeremy Summerly’s short but informative notes provide just enough details to give listeners new to this music a start in understanding the mystique of this fascinating and uniquely gifted celebrity from the 12th-century—a true Renaissance woman long before the Renaissance was invented.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2008

When the music of Hildegard von Bingen was rediscovered twenty-five years ago, she was marketed as a nun living her life locked away from the outside world.Yet she was immensely gifted in the art of music, creating this collection known as the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. Now we have come to realise that she came from an aristocratic family and for much of the time she was an Abbess who surrounded herself with women from a similar background, the group living a peaceful life of relative luxury. Her collection was made from 77 songs and one music drama, and again with greater exposure we are learning that she wrote in a very styalised fashion. Put all of that behind us and this disc continues to weave its magic spell of ethereal repose. Eight works have been selected that offer a limited difference of mood, and are here performed by eight members of the Oxford Camerata, my long-standing favourite vocal group in the field of Early Music. As we progress through the programme they make us aware that any one of them could make a major solo career, that innate freshness in their voices being a joy to hear. They are directed by Jeremy Summerly, one of the UK’s leading authorities in this period of composition, and he returns the group to their favourite recording venue in the Chapel of Hertford College, Oxford, the choral sound there ideal for the music.

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