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Montserrat on Montserrat

available at Amazon
Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, M. Figueras, Hespèrion XX (inter alii), J. Savall

(re-released on October 25, 2010)
Virgin 628658 2 1 | 59'18"
Hard as it is to believe, this fine little disc was recorded 35 years ago, in the heyday of the early music movement. In it Jordi Savall offers alternately mysterious and earthy performances of the ten pieces notated in the Llibre vermell, a 14th-century codex from the Abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat in the mountains of Catalonia. This monastery was often frequented by pilgrims, as a final destination or as one of the stops along the route to Santiago de Compostela. A note in the margins of the "red book," as it came to be known because of the red velvet cover made for it in the 19th century, specifies that these ten pieces are for the use of pilgrims keeping vigil in the abbey church or in the square in front of it. Instead of singing inappropriate folk songs, they should sing and dance to this more pious music. (One of the pieces was also recorded by John Eliot Gardiner recently, in the context of a selection of music for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.) Jordi Savall and his instrumental ensemble Hespèrion XX -- at this time including Christophe Coin and Hopkinson Smith, among others -- give a folksy twist to the dance and popular song-like pieces. The late Montserrat Figueras leads a large consort of voices, both men and women in various combinations, to give the impression of a large group of pilgrims united on the cammino, of both washed and unwashed varieties.

The only drawback of this re-release, priced to move, is that the booklet contains neither texts nor translations of the fascinating texts, some in Latin and some in Catalan, but you can find both here and they are worth reading, intense in their pious sentiments and specific to the mountaintop monastic house for which they were composed, like a vivid slice of late medieval life. Perhaps only in the "calamitous 14th century," as historian Barbara Tuchman termed it, could such dancing enthusiasm be matched to lyrics about hastening toward death ("You will become a vile cadaver, why will you not avoid sin?") in the final piece. In a nice touch, the male schola reprises the opening piece at the end of the disc, the serene chant O virgo splendens hic in monte celso miraculis serrato (O virgin, shining brightly, on this high serrated mountain -- Montserrat), which fades into the distance as the pilgrimage continues.

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