Precious few records of Old Roman Chant remain, many having being intentionally destroyed by the Franciscans intent on imposing the Romano-Frankish modes. Ensemble Organum have attempted to reconstruct, with their usual meticulous scholarship, what it might have sounded like. The result is mindblowing, and makes one weep for what treasures of beautiful music must have been lost forever with the triumph of the somewhat blander, "dumbed-down" Gregorian forms. This recreation, as the sleeve notes say, "brings alive the missing link between Byzantine, Coptic, Armenian and Syrian Chant, and Arab and Western music". Fabulous stuff.
Sally forth in droves and purchase this disc, though if you're an Ensemble Organum fan already you certainly won't need any persuasion.
This recording of Old Roman chant - the fourth instalment in this particular 'sub-series' of albums - is undoubtedly one of Ensemble Organum's finest efforts and is an album that I find myself returning to time after time. Unlike Gregorian chant sung in the Solemnes style (whose `dumbed-down' sound most people are familiar with today) the ornamentation utilised here is highly developed - which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Ensemble Organum's extensive output over the years! Although the use of elaborate ornamentation is sometimes derided and viewed as controversial by certain musicologists and other `experts' who specialise in the revival of early religious music, the Byzantine influences present here - as we are told in the linear notes by Marcel Pérès - attain to a time when the Churches of the East and West were communed in cultural and spiritual unity. As a result, the similarities between old Byzantine chant, in terms of cadential, modal and ornamental formulas are very apparent. In relation to this, it should also be noted that Old Roman Chant is of particular importance insofar as it acts as a mediate between the Temple of Jerusalem and the Greek Orthodox Church, providing a link to the musical origins of each.
Only five manuscripts of Old Roman chant remain in existence and this recording uses the oldest of these, dating from 1071. The sound - in which the melodic lines are supported by the use of organum, also referred to as ''basilican organum'' (i.e. the sustained note given to the bass voices) - on Chant de l'Église de Rome VIe - XIIIe is rich and full (and, I may add, vastly improved from that present on Ensemble Organum's preceding release, 'Le Chant des Templiers', which I can't help but feel lacked a certain vitality, sonically speaking), yet absolutely none of the essential solemnity and sacred atmosphere has been lost, as I fear has happened with some of the ensemble's other more recent offerings, in which more advanced recording techniques - and hence a more polished sound - has been detrimental to the presentation of the chants themselves. Lastly, I really must praise the quality of the artwork - and, for that matter, the packaging (which takes the form of a digipack) - used for this release. Created by Anne Peultier (who has provided artwork for many releases on the excellent Zig-Zag Territoires label since its inception), the imagery is tastefully done and it's refreshing to see original artwork utilised on a release such as this (to my mind, the album cover is the finest yet to grace an Ensemble Organum CD), rather than a generic photograph seemingly `stuck on' as a kind of after-thought. This glaring absence of creativity and consideration for aesthetics is sadly all too prevalent in releases of this nature, but thankfully we have here an album that doesn't stray into such pitfalls. Highly recommended.