Capella Nova’s four female singers have again created a highly poised reconstruction of plainchant, celebrating an early Celtic saint. It is certainly equal to Flame of Ireland (reviewed in The Consort vol.64 summer 2008) in which they reconstructed 15 th century Irish chants dedicated to St Brigit of Kildare and, like Flame of Ireland , this CD is also recorded in the bright, clear acoustic of St Mary’s Church, Haddington. These recordings are rigorous in both research and performance although, in comparison with the earlier recording, Apostle of Ireland is a little indistinct. Canty have attempted to create a ‘snapshot in time’, drawing music and texts together from the 13 th to the 15 th centuries, leaving it a little unclear which moment they are attempting to recapture. The Propers are for First Vespers, Matins, Lauds and Second Vespers, in honour of St Patrick’s name day, as performed in one of the saint’s own dedicated foundations. As such, these services would be an important focus in the liturgical year.
It is very difficult to pick fault with such a beautiful recording. The highlights for me are from the First Vespers. The unison antiphons, illustrating the life of St Patrick, create a clear, open and disciplined sound. These are lacking in emotional excitement, but create a gentle and meditative mood – until the Prosa Mente munda letabunda offers an isolated moment of modal rhythm. This is bright and brisk with contrasting droned harmonies, and is followed directly by the hymn Exultent filii matris ecclesia which, by contrast, is led by syllabic stresses, with new vocal colours, introducing a much freer, lighter and higher tonal range.
The office of Matins occupies the largest portion of the recording, and displays less sense of drama or celebration, in its ritualistic movement and its musical momentum. The full Matins would be the longest, and musically most wide-ranging, service of the day. Its full two-and-a-half hour structure has been cut down in length, and the office probably loses some of its formal complexity and ritualistic intensity by being abbreviated in this way. It opens with a very beautiful extended invitatory, followed by a lighter hymn Ad hanc doctor with harp accompaniment (drawing upon the second part of the hymn Ecce fulget clarissima from the First Vespers). Since much of the standard liturgical chant has been omitted, the rest of the service consists of a rather long series of alternating unadorned antiphons and responsories accompanied by the harp which, though very beautifully performed, become a little unrelenting.
William Taylor’s wire-strung clarsach is a gentle, subdued adornment to the whole, and considering the strong argument made for the harp’s use in the sleeve notes, I was left wishing that the colours and variety made possible by the harp had been used a little less tentatively. Taylor’s light touch enhances some colours, but can sometimes be a little obscured. The instrumental sound could, perhaps, have been used more fully to punctuate or vary the controlled restraint of the ensemble’s predominantly vocal character.
Rebecca Tavener writes ‘As entertainers our interest lies [at least partially in offering] the most interesting musical experiences’, while she professes the aesthetic of ‘less is more’. Applying equal note lengths to the ligatures and written chant, as they have, should indeed allow subtle changes of tempo and emphasis to the test and phrase shapes. It keeps their unison singing extraordinarily tight, but at times, this does slow down the narrative quality.
In discussing the use of the harp in monastic establishments, Tavener acknowledges that ‘the sacred medieval music of Scotland and Ireland could not fail to be influenced by centuries of secular bardic practice’. Why not also apply this to the telling of the saint’s own, rather dramatic story? Canty are reverential and selfless in their performance of this meditative work, but I would argue for even more variation between stressed and unstressed syllables, and more varied tempi to reflect dramatic, storytelling techniques.
Apostle of Ireland is another subtle and sensitive recreation of devotional music, meticulously researched, and convincingly performed. Canty are an ensemble whose voices maintain individual characteristics, while integrating into a seamlessly unified whole. Their discipline and their ravishing vocal quality make this recording a welcome moment of calm and devotion in an agitated time.