Hymns of Kassianí - Cappella Romana
Cappella Romana CR422
Classical - Vocal
Kassiani (Kassia): Hymns for Christmas, Hymns from the Triodion and Holy Week
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Review by Adrian Quanjer - April 12, 2021
Though this may not be a release ‘for the millions’, it does carry aspects of interest to all. Music is part of human civilization as is mankind’s ability to speak. Both are a means to communicate. Music and speech come together in their choral expression. The importance of this new release is to allow us to go back in time to discover more about the origins of sacred choral music, and - perhaps a revelation for uninitiated - that Hildegard von Bingen wasn’t the first female composer. Three centuries (!) before her, St. Kassía of Constantinople (now Istanbul) composed “texts and music for Byzantine public worship”.
In a well-documented essay, Alexander Lingas, Music Director and founder of Cappella Romana, shares with us 7 pages of research, opening a virtual door to the rich Byzantine past and its religious life about which most of us, including me, have too little or hardly any knowledge. A must-read, therefore, for a religious chant-loving community. St. Kassía of the Eastern Orthodox Church, belonging to a small “group of women known to have written texts and music for Byzantine public worship”, is the earliest female composer from whom surviving music is available. It may be recalled that female composers have always been rare specimina. Even until the 19th century, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann (Wieck) were still considered an exception. In that light, St. Kassía’s historical importance makes the apparent degree of emancipation in the ninth century in Constantinople all the more special.
I must admit never before having listened to any of the Hymns of Kassianí (the Latin form of her name). Nor am I a scholar on the subject and I wonder how many of us are. Nonetheless, the positive point is that I listen with the same ears and frame of mind as I believe most will do upon hearing these hymns for the first time. What struck me right away, is the high degree of professionalism of the mixed male-female chorale. I knew them from a previous recording Lost voices of Hagia Sophia - Lingas, reason for not repeating what I said then. And besides, bios of all of them are included in the accompanying booklet. Because of the pure singing, we can direct all our attention to the hymns themselves, of which texts and English translations are also given in the booklet.
It may be evident that a first listening session demands a fair amount of concentration. An intellectual exercise, one might say, which shouldn’t be a problem assuming that most and possibly all classical music lovers dispose of that faculty. For me, it is the spiritual force that emanates from these chants that make them so impressively intense and foreboding. It reminded me of similar feelings when visiting some 25 years ago the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra (Kiev Monastery of the Caves) in Ukraine, where the first Christian monks were forced to hide and live in subterranean corridors. Somewhere in its centre there was a small chapel where monks and worshippers sang continuously Byzantine hymns (the one’s coming taking over from the one’s leaving) that reverb in the candlelit corridors with a droning and at times lamenting character, getting louder as you come closer. The full mystic weight invades your spirit like being back in the Eastern Orthodox time. Proof of Cappella Romana’s authenticity? For me, no doubt. We owe it to Alexander Lingas that these and other Byzantine memories from the mist of times are brought to life and recorded for eternity. But with one big difference: Cappella’s far superior singing and tonal variety, thanks to the female choristers.
From St. Kassía to Hildegard von Bingen was already a giant step and from there to Arvo Pärt! another huge jump. But all devoted to the same Christianity. Having now the Hymns of Kassiani in historically informed performance constitute a document of global importance.
It is not for everyday listening but all the same an ear-opener well worth anyone’s curiosity. And Cappella Records have not spared any means to have it recorded at the highest available resolution, with the best engineers around: Blenton Alspauch and the team at SoundMirror (Mark Donahue), all of it produced by Mark Powell, Cappella Records.
Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France
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