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CD Review: Office of San Minias

Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Early music on the cutting edge
Washington Post, September 15

available at Amazon
Officium Sancti Miniatis (Florence, Arcivescovado, s.c.), Coro Viri Galilaei, Ensemble San Felice

(released on July 8, 2016)
Bongiovanni GB5193-2 | 107'03"
[CD booklet]
The music we call Gregorian chant was not a monolithic, unified repertory. Melodies and texts varied widely from place to place, century to century. The only way to appreciate this is to study medieval manuscripts, where individual differences are manifested, especially in the feasts of local saints. This beautiful new recording on the Bongiovanni label offers one such unusual selection, a rare set of chants for the Divine Office in honor of St. Minias, a third-century martyr whose relics are venerated at the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte overlooking Florence. For those seeking to lower their blood pressure during an overheated election season, this calming music is a balm.

Giovanni Alpigiano edited the musical source, a 12th-century antiphoner used in Florence Cathedral and now in the collection of the city’s archiepiscopal archive. I happen to be familiar with it because of research conducted for the CANTUS Project during my graduate school studies, a manuscript containing several rare or unique offices for unusual Italian saints. This recording by two Florentine chant choirs, the Coro Viri Galilaei and Ensemble San Felice, does not attempt to re-create these medieval prayer services in their complete form. Although lessons drawn from the saint’s vita are inserted between the matins responsories, minor prayers and versicles are omitted, as are all but the first couple of verses of psalms and canticles. The focus is on the chants found in the manuscript, although the recording does not include some of them, such as the alternate invitatory and a string of extra antiphons at the end of Lauds.

The Coro Viri Galilaei sings most of the pieces, and the women, who sing the chants of the first nocturn of Matins, have an especially pretty, meditative sound. The smaller Ensemble San Felice sings the third nocturn, with a tone slightly more refined than the men of the Coro Viri Galilaei, greater in number, who sing the second nocturn. In any case, with this sort of liturgical music, some roughness around the edges of the voices only adds to the appeal, as in some of the solo contributions. The two directors, Enzo Ventroni and Federico Bardazzi, prefer a free-flowing style of chant performance rather than trying to retrofit later metric patterns onto this music notated without rhythmic durations. The sound, recorded in a place called the Villa Calloria, has a long acoustic ring similar to what you would hear in a church of stone.
Keith Glaeske, Charles Downey, and Lila Collamore, Firenze (Florence), Arcivescovado - Biblioteca, s.c. (Index of chants, CANTUS Database)

This unusual manuscript also has an alternate Office for Nativity of Mary, with texts drawn from Song of Songs, not found in any other sources and so apparently unique to Florence Cathedral. It also includes special offices for Saint Zenobius, the first bishop of Florence; Saint Vitus, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers; Saint Apollinaris of Ravenna; Saint Donatus of Arezzo; and Saint Syrus, first bishop of Pavia.

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