Sacred Women
(1997; Dorian, 2001)

First, a word about Sarband. Formed in 1986 to explore the meeting places between Islamic, Jewish and early Christian musical traditions, this ensemble of great women features Fadia El-Hage, Belinda Sykes and Marianne Kirch. In Sacred Women, their third disc for Dorian, the group explores three critical sources for period music at the meeting of the worlds. By turns, they delve into the work of Kassia, a 9th-century Byzantine nun and composer, selections from the extensive writings of the 11th-century mystic and visionary Hildegard von Bingen, and excerpts from the canonical cycle of the Codex Las Huelgas (which dates to the close of the 13th century). Infused throughout all of the music presented is a sense of both specific time and place and the increasingly complex fusion and exchange which transformed Carolingian and Eastern plainsong chants into what would become the more polyphonous liturgical celebrations of the High Middle Ages.

Well, that's all well and good, I hear you say, but what about the music? Is it any good? From a performance standpoint, it is better than good, it's magnificent. From an engineering standpoint, it is better than good, it's exquisite. But wait, I hear you say, can you be more ... specific? Yes, I can.

There's the antiphonal "O Magne Pater," a von Bingen composition that floats bell-like above the listener, with it's suggestions of Eastern tonal modalities. There's the vespers homily "Augustus," by Kassia, with it's hammered dulcimer underpinnings giving way to the solo alto supported by a vocal drone. Most of all, there is the glory of the hymn of benediction, "Catholicorum Concio," with a refrain of "solvat" that soars to the heavens.

Enough gushing. If you like early music, or if you think you might like early music, or even if you're just a fan of some of the vocal music from Gladiator and aren't sure why, this is a disc you need to own. I'd stay and chat, but there are two previous Sarband discs out there I need to run out and buy....

[ by Gilbert Head ]
Rambles: 7 June 2002