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Gautier de Coincy Miracles of Notre Dame Review

Album. Released 2003.  

BBC Review

13th century love poetry from the troubadours of northern France, given a religious...

Andrew McGregor 2003

In early 13th century France the Prior of Vic-sur-Aisne, a town north of Paris and due east of Beauvais, was struggling with a familiar problem for clergy down the centuries: how to stop secular celebrations and popular entertainment from chipping away at the cultural status of the established church. Over at Beauvais Cathedral they had their own solution; bring the music, gambling and other blasphemous pursuits inside the church in the form of a dramatised bible story, making a religious example of the bad behaviour.

Meanwhile Prior Gautier de Coincy came up with something different: he used the popular songs and courtly love-poetry of the troubadours as vehicles for his own preferred brand of love poetry: translations of the Miracles performed by the Virgin Mary, and his lavish praise of her above all earthly women...a little like the trendy vicars of 1980s and 90s Britain bringing guitars and keyboards into churches to perform a new kind of 'pop'-style hymn.

Gautier's Miracles of Notre Dame have survived 800 years, yet they leave modern performers with insoluble problems if they want to bring them back to life. As far as instruments, improvisation and ornamentation are concerned it's mostly guesswork, so the Harp Consort has decided to honour the texts above all else...after all, that was Gautier's inspiration.

The singing is deliciously clear, attractively hard-edged at times, and the instrumental accompaniments and improvisations offer some superb performances: brilliant medieval fiddle playing from Jane Achtman, and outstanding work on cornett and shawm from Ian Harrison. There are too many fine pieces of singing to list, and Andrew Lawrence-King avoids swamping the simple tunes and beautiful poetry with an excess of instruments, while still giving his gifted team of improvisers enough opportunities to show its skill in some hugely enjoyable ensembles.

Lawrence-King's notes are fascinating, and inclusive,and the recording in this lovely French Abbey near the Belgian border is demonstration-class, complete with an authentic French chorus of birdsong that would have charmed Messiaen.

Who knows what these Miracles of Notre Dame would have sounded like 800 years ago? We don't; neither does Andrew Lawrence-King. But if they were half as well-performed and as beautifully presented as they are here, Gautier de Coincy's flock was fortunate indeed.

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