CD Review: Canty
Celebrating their tenth anniversary this year, Canty, Scotland’s only professional group dedicated to the performance of medieval music, turns its attention towards Ireland and specifically to Irish plainchant to create an Office for St Patrick’s Day.
In her excellent booklet note, the group’s founder and director, Rebecca Tavener, describes the assembled material as offering ‘a snap-shot in time, showing what people believed of the saint at the moment these medieval texts were written’.
On offer is a collection of richly conceived propers (sung texts specific to a particular feast day) drawn from what is thought to be the only remaining extant examples of the form. These have been cross-referenced and validated from 10 different sources, the earliest of which is a fourteenth-century manuscript containing material dating back a further two centuries, currently part of the Waterford Collection in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
The other sources date from the fifteenth-century and later, with only five of them, now in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, containing any form of musical notation. And it’s from two of those manuscripts – principally MSS79, with additions from MSS80 – that the bulk of this recording is derived.
It should be noted that this is not a full Office, omitting as it does what Tavener calls ‘the standard daily liturgical material’, such as, for example, the Psalms that would have punctuated Matins. But that is to the good, the relative brevity imbuing these performances with a more concentrated, no less rich or rewarding demeanour.
Patchwork though the source material of Matins, Vespers and Lauds’ antiphons, hymns and responsories may be – and its assembly underpinned as much by conjecture as by certainty – Apostle of Ireland nonetheless remains a recording shot through with a sublime, still beauty that refuses the brute reality of the era in which it was created while also and eloquently defying the soulless, neon-bright, billboard-high, noise-saturated environment of our own age.
Listeners with a penchant for detailed musicology will appreciate the thoroughness with which Tavener and her colleagues have approached this material, and perhaps also relish engaging with the Scottish undercurrents that pulse through and occasionally break the surface of the music.
Performances by the all-female quartet of voices are predicated on an approach that assumes ‘less is more’. So the texts are sung with equal notes, each and variously shaped by the specific and particular cadence and rhythm of individual words and phrases, with just occasionally the trembling keening of a drone adding a gently coruscated texture all of its own.
What ornamentation there is to be found, is left to the subtle, sugar-sweet and wholly appropriate harp accompaniments improvised by William Taylor that glisten and sparkle against the uniform plainchant backdrop like starlight at the dying of dusk.
In a word: blissful.
Published on 1 May 2008
Michael Quinn is a freelance music and theatre journalist based in Co. Down.