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Precision and Purity

Recordings from Estonia -
reviewed by

Carmina Sanctorum - Music from the Middle Ages in Praise of Saints. © 1998 RS Records

On the surface, this beautifully produced CD might appear just too rarefied: Music from the Middle Ages in Praise of Saints. And over seventy minutes of it too. In fact, it is exquisitely realised and performed; perfect for dipping into if you feel so inclined, but so well-considered as a programme that I've listened to it from beginning to end, several times, with complete enjoyment.

Three groups of songs are devoted to St Mary, the Blessed Virgin, the nonpareil of saints, but the little known St Hedwig, St Rupert and St Stanislaus are represented too, along with Nicholas, Barbara, Catherine and St James of Compostella. The material dates from the twelfth century (Hildegard von Bingen) through to the fifteenth.

What distinguishes the performances of Rondellus is the precision and purity of their near vibrato-less singing. Listen, for example to the unison delivery of male and female voices in Hildegard's Ave Generosa [listen -- track 10, 0:01-1:25]. But purity does not mean prissiness. The lines are fluid and graceful, with an underlying tautness which demonstrates the performers' understanding of the 'architecture' of each piece.

Variety is obtained by mixing a capella pieces with accompanied songs, and occasional instrumental material; and another impressive facet of Rondellus is that lute, fiddle and 'symphony' contributions are provided by the singers themselves. Other instruments are played by guest performers. The quality, and balance, of the recorded sound is excellent.

All this does not, somehow, tell the whole story. Though I should be hard-pressed to explain quite why I feel as I do, I have to say that these performances strike me as genuinely devotional. Rondellus, hailing as they do from Estonia, are hardly a household name, even among enthusiasts of early music. On the evidence of this CD, they most certainly deserve much wider recognition.

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Copyright © 23 March 2006 Rex Harley, Cardiff UK


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