Acantus
Acantus
Gimel Records Limited, Oxford, England (www.gimell.com/)

"The music of ordinary people who once prayed and sang as an integral part of their daily lives has disappeared almost without trace. Until fairly recent times, the ability to write was the privilege of the ruling classes, with the result that manuscripts handed down to us are of music for the cultural or religious elite, providing few clues as to what went on in the wider world of popular music." The intriguing liner note essay, whose introduction is excerpted above, is by Marco Ferrari and Alessandra Fiori, performers of 14th & 15th century sacred music of medieval Italy, on this debut release for the English renaissance music label Gimmel. While many ancient chant recordings depend upon complexly woven, fairly sophisticated material to solicit interest from classical listeners, Acantus has done something more daring in finding simpler, stronger music and presenting it with appropriate immediacy and vigor. The perspective is perfectly idealized wi! th an eye-brow raising cover image close-up of an exquisite crucifix dangling unflinchingly near a cleaved bosom.

Released in 1999, the work of this Italian ensemble should not be missed for its earthy imagining of the spirituality of long-ago Italian commoners. Acantus are two women and four men at the core, and sing in a "simple polyphonic" style, which features clear, direct and affecting chant harmonies, sometimes tantalizingly underpinned with eternity-suggesting drone. Their unabashedly personal approach has been to start from the modern remnants of orally-passed folk tradition and work backward to ancient text and score. The fruit of this marriage is timeless and literally yields more with less.

The group employ an open, vibrato-less vocal style that illuminates gorgeous, efficient melodies, giving one pause to doubt the need for anything more than what is presented. Indeed such direct music would require faultless tone and a very organic sense of rhythm and this Acantus has in sheaves. In the end, as with much folk music, profuse artful elaboration and over-exerted aesthetics are absent from these chants and therein is found the secret of their extraordinary power.

Between the a capella takes, accompaniment or instrumental drone comes, often singularly, in the form of a lute, a viella (medieval violin), an organistrum or an organ, a flute or a bagpipe. Many of the pieces prayerfully honor the mother of God and the Christ and are interspersed with mass elements, but also include a few raucous Easter passages of celebratory excitement spiced with percussion. The recording was made on location in a lively church acoustic. To hear some of these major and minor key tunes, in fine high-lonesome delivery with echoes, is to be delivered to a palpable moment outside time, as if standing in the arched doorway of some stony sanctuary watching a mid-morning sun blaze on distant roofslate. Though the hour-shy set of seventeen tracks is not conveyed as a coherent religious event, the deliberate, simple grace of the variegated prayers it records and the solid tunes they employ, will serve spiritual and secular listeners alike. This is! a record that exemplifies what any good music, anywhere, anytime aspires to be; not only beautiful on its own account, but also to be participated in without intimidation even if just humming reverently along. Includes complete Latin prayers and English translation. - Steve Taylor

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