Secret Voices = Chant and Polyphony from Las Huelgas Codex – Anonymous 4 – Harmonia mundi

by | Oct 29, 2011 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

Secret Voices = Chant and Polyphony from the Las Huelgas Codex, c. 1300 – Anonymous 4 – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD 807510, 58:27 ****:
The Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas monastery is located in Burgos Spain, and has been a house of Cistercian nuns since 1199, when Eleanor of England, daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, asked her husband Alfonso VIII of Castile to establish the house some twelve years earlier. The house was favored by many royal privileges, and the abbess was able to exercise not a little degree of civil authority, as well as duties somewhat unusual like licensing priests and convening synods. The notes to this release try to make the case that an abbess hearing confessions might seem “shocking” today, but we need not be alarmed—this is common in many women’s monastic orders east and west today, though the idea that she could give absolution (rumored in some information regarding Las Huelgas) is doubtful, and the idea that she could “say mass”, meaning exercise the priestly function is simply nonsense—this never happened, even though it cannot be doubted that the more powerful abbesses of the day wielded a lot of authority in the realm where their monastery existed.
Anonymous 4 is of course also convinced that the music that exists in the codex from this institution—a large and varied anthology that covers two centuries—was intended for the nuns to sing and not the male chaplains. I can’t fault the group for assuming this—after all, they are four women in constant search of new music, though they have been criticized in many review publications for recording repertory that others are convinced never was intended to be sung by females. I suppose from an authentic point of view this does matter somewhat, if the prime directive of that movement is taken to be an historical reconstruction of ancient performance practice. And maybe Anonymous 4 thinks that way as well and is convinced that this is the way it should happen. I am not sure, nor am I sure it matters. Music, even ancient music, is first and foremost a living art, and it must be presented as such with as much dedication and fervor as is possible. Few ancient music groups can match these ladies in their track record along these lines, and their consistency from album to album is astonishing, even with the replacement of one member.
The recording attempts to convey what a single “day” of music in honor of the Virgin Mary might have been like, and the variety of polyphonic and plainchant pieces make for an intriguing mix. The day is divided up into “First Light”, “Morning”, “Mass”, “Evening”, and “Night”, but note that the “mass” is not a real one composed for the occasion but instead a collection of assembled pieces, probably just like it would have been then. It is really quite an assemblage that testifies to the great variance in musical forms and styles present at the time.
Performances are excellent, HM’s production values superb as usual. If you collect A4 recordings this is no time to stop.
—Steven Ritter

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