Hildegard von Bingen: Ordo Virtutum (ECM New Series 2219)

Ordo Virtutum

Hildegard von Bingen
Ordo Virtutum

Ensemble Belcanto
Andrea Baader soprano
Edith Murasov mezzo-soprano
Rica Rauch alto
Martina Scharstein soprano
Dietburg Spohr mezzo-soprano

Benjamin Cromme speaker
Lilith Reid speaker
Selina Drews girl soprano
Recorded October 2010, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main
Engineer: Markus Heiland
An ECM Production

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) is without parallel. She has been called by biographer Fiona Maddocks “The Woman of Her Age” and, elsewhere, “a Renaissance woman several centuries before the Renaissance.” We know very little about von Bingen, except that she certainly recognized the theological import of music, if not also the musical import of theology. As a composer, von Bingen came to popular prominence in the mid-1990s, when interpretations of her works by such landmark ensembles as Sequentia rode a wave of Gregorian chant and other recordings of medieval music to great success. Her Ordo Virtutum of circa 1150 is a quasi-liturgical mystery play that walks a textual path (modeled after the Song of Songs, Isaiah, and the Revelation of St. John) into what Gerhard R. Koch in his refreshing liner notes calls a “psychodrama” between the virtuous and the satanic. Koch rightly cautions those of us who think we appreciate von Bingen’s music, when really we adore the beautification of it. (Sequentia’s recording of the Ordo, in fact, set a precedent by adding instruments where none exist in the essentially monophonic score.) Indeed, how many of us have actually read her works, sat with her mystical visions and followed their many threads of light? The phenomenally talented singers of Ensemble Belcanto, led by mezzo-soprano Dietburg Spohr, have on this recording responded with a reading of their own—one in which divine impulses speak in earthly languages, and far from the adornments so much in vogue in early-music practice. “The presumption of uniformly executed solemnity,” Koch reminds, “induces at least ideological suspicion of a narcotic, lulling ideal of the Middle Ages.” Taking this suspicion to heart, Belcanto pays deepest respect to von Bingen’s vision by kneading shadows into its glow.

“Who are these, who seem like clouds?” So ask the patriarchs and prophets of the play’s opening scene. Such words speak to an overarching (and subterranean) theme of dual relationships: between internal and external, emotional and physical, present and historical moments. Already the recording is such that we feel a part of the singing circle, forgoing the reverberant cathedral space for an intimate experience: this is not the reflection of vaulted stone but the absorption of ancient wood. There is a solemnity, to be sure, but it comes from a feeling of sharing in a fearlessness of interpretation rather than from some unverifiable, hermetic fantasy. Here the voices interlock, shape one another in real time, and forge their own pathos like a barrier against the flames of Hell itself.

Belcanto’s immediately recognizable sound lends a familiarity to this narrative of struggle. The arrangement of “Querela Animarum in came positarum” (Lament of embodied Souls) is especially moving in its nervous tutti singing, and in the way its lowest voices extend to a self-aware ripple. Dissonances add willing integrity, while gasping, birdlike calls and responses and whistling motifs indicate the half-physicality of the titular Virtues and their eternal questioning. They are, in fact, given the most varied palette, much in contrast to the children’s voices speaking the Devil’s words out of sync. And while there are beauties (such as Charity’s introduction) to be found, the brevity of each section allows us to move on, and folk elements to spring Pagan-like from the grasslands. Spohr’s arrangements thus speak to the unspeakable: singing on inhales as Faith, breathing gravel as Discipline, and keening as fragile Mercy. What sparse instrumentation there is—a beaten drum for Victory, bells for Chastity—ignores the trappings of note value and goes straight for the viscera.

The final procession feels closest to plainchant, its core opening to the light of salvation. “So now, all you people,” it is sung, “bend your knees to the Father, that he may reach you his hand.” It is one possible realization of von Bingen’s ideal: that any and all voices should magnify the same faith. And despite the array of “modern” techniques employed to get there, we can be sure that Belcanto is not making the music new but rather fortifying its antiquity. The end result is among the more fascinating albums in the entire New Series catalogue, and as such asks only the same devotion of attention that went into its creation. Because the booklet provides no translation, you will want to have one in front of you while listening (one is available here). Only then will you appreciate the sheer level of embodiment taking place in every word.