Jean Hanelle: Cypriot Vespers

Graindelavoix, Björn Schmelzer
76:06
Glossa GCD P32112

I recently struggled to enjoy these performers’ account of Machaut’s Messe de Notre Dame, but I thought they might be back on more fruitful territory here with a speculative liturgical reconstruction of Cypriot Vespers of the 15th century featuring the music of Jean Hanelle, the Flemish composer now credited with the entire contents of Turin manuscript J:II:9. Framed as a service in Cyprus where Hanelle spent most of his creative life, the CD juxtaposes traditional Maronite and Greek- and Arabo-Byzantine chant with Hanelle’s polyphony. I tried to just let this mélange wash over me, but I found musicological alarms going off left, right and centre. Why do some of Hanelle’s motets (such as 9. O Clavis David) deserve relatively straight if quirky polyphonic performance while others (such as 8. O Radix Jesse) are subjected to an amorphous, floaty rendition which all but destroys all concept of the rhythms and overall structure? Even assuming that 15th-century incomers to Cyprus applied the same performance conventions to their music as present-day ‘traditional’ singers do (and when you think about it that is quite a conceptual leap), why is there such variation of approach within the way Graindelavoix present this repertoire? And remember the bad old days when the ‘living’ Solemnes school of plainchant singing dictated the way everybody sang historic chant? This is a CD which is enjoyable in parts, ironically in my opinion at the two extremes of pretty conventional polyphonic singing and ‘traditionally’ presented eastern chants, where the Byzantine chanter Adrian Sirbu has clearly provided useful advice, but I found the cross-over attempts unconvincing and poorly justified in the notes (another of these pesky mock interviews!). It is impressive to find Björn Schmelzer continuing to plough his distinctive furrow, questioning many of our fundamental assumptions about the performance of early choral repertoire, and his CDs continue to provide food for thought as well as continuing to attract the attention of a loyal following. And perhaps my growing disconnect with them is more a sign of my advancing age and hardening attitudes than his increasing self-indulgence. But I hope not.

D. James Ross