Nostre Dame

The monophonic Repertoire of the famous NotreDame School
Sanstierce
55:01
Talanton TAL90016

This is a beautiful recording by Early Music enthusiasts with a special interest in the surviving oral traditions rooted in the Christian and Islamic world. Sanstierce have taken as their theme the Virgin Mary, since she appears in both the Qur’an and the Bible. Two members of the ensemble are German while Bassem Hawar is originally from Baghdad. Some source material for improvisation and embellishment is taken from early manuscripts (Cod. Guelf. Helmst., MS. Pluteus  and Egerton 274); but both Hawar and Schneider have devised their own pieces in appropriate styles and adapted or reconstructed their instruments.

In the opening piece Maria Jonas shows the fine quality of her voice in its range, purity and power, her breath control and command of ornaments, conjuring up the sounds of Islam, which share their roots with Christianity. She masters prolonged vowels, microtones, cadences, and the occasional Arabic catch in the voice, and the sound rings out as if it were a Call to Prayer. The shruti  box provides a drone, and her voice is complemented sympathetically by flute and djoze  accompaniment.

The Middle Eastern atmosphere is further captured in a piece devised by Bassem Hawar with tremulo, pulsing high notes, sliding tones, long phrases and occasionally two strings played simultaneously. Embellishments on high notes are accompanied by plucking and dance-like percussion. In another piece by Hawar djoze  and gittern interweave their sounds, bowing and plucking, with embellishments and off-beats.

Not to be overshadowed, though, Our Lady of Roman Catholicism is asserted with intensity and fervour in two pieces drawn from the Egerton manuscript. One begins with a slow plaintive narrative style and is followed by a fast tuneful movement occasionally slowing into long phrases. Midway is a heartfelt cry “O Maria!” and a harmonium effect from the shruti box. This cry recurs dramatically in the final piece, after slow plucking, wide-ranging tones in the voice, deep string sound and a plaintive mood. The recording ends with a slow dignified dance rhythm which illustrates the divergence of the two cultures brought together by Sanstierce.

The CD cover is illustrated strikingly with the eyes of Maria Jonas appearing as through a hijab. As a substitute for a more expensive booklet, there is small close writing in German and English crammed on to the unfolding cover, and a little about the instruments can be learnt from a Sanstierce website. But then, Talanton specialises in some wonderfully unusual recordings.

Diana Maynard