OregonLive Review: Re-creation of 12th century vespers service is a milestone

By James McQuillen, Special to The Oregonian
on November 17, 2012 at 2:05 PM, updated November 17, 2012 at 2:10 PM

The sound of medieval chant prevalent in the modern imagination — limpid and ethereal, with barely a suggestion of rhythm or of the physical presence of the people who sing it — is a 19th-century creation, but Marcel Pérès begs to differ.

An iconoclastic musicologist with an intimate knowledge of a vast range of early liturgical song, Pérès joined Portland’s Cappella Romana at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Friday night for a concert that should rank among the ensemble’s many milestones, a sonically and intellectually captivating re-creation of a vespers service from the 12th-century Codex Calixtinus.

In typical Cappella Romana fashion, the performance combined the arcane and the arresting in fascinating fashion. Under the leadership of singer and scholar Alexander Lingas, the group has invited its large and enthusiastic following into byways of sacred traditions of the Christian East and West, often revealing rich troves of unusual sound and historical interest.

The Codex Calixtinus is such a trove, a manuscript containing music and lore for the ancient pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. With texts on the apostle St. James, the devotional focus of the pilgrimage, it combines numerous musical styles from the dawn of polyphony. Its antiphons achieve their expressiveness from the characters of the different modes in which they are set; its responsory and hymns use different forms of early writing for two voices. The concluding “Congaudeant catholici” is the oldest extant three-part polyphonic piece. (On top of the intriguing musicological arcana, students of Latin may get an added frisson from the appearance in the opening hymn of the names of James in all the cases of the Latin declension.)

The great challenge of the music has been getting from the spare notation of eight centuries ago to the living sound that filled the cathedral Friday night; Pérès drew on myriad sources to create a performance style remarkable for its vigor and vibrancy, with robust sound and ornamentation.

Alongside him, nine male singers from Cappella gave a terrific performance, uninterrupted over nearly two hours and using facsimiles of the codex (Pérès himself sang from memory). Often repositioning themselves in the room in a way that enhanced the flow of the chant, they displayed great stamina, ensemble and musicianship, effectively creating the illusion that this unique re-creation was perfectly natural for them, and thereby that a 12th-century manuscript was returned to living tradition.

Read this review in its original post at OregonLive.