Canty - Carmina Celtica - MusicWeb International

"There are a number of thematic strands running through this programme: the wanderings of Celtic saints across Europe in the Dark Ages, light and the heavenly bodies, and the life-force of creation, to name but three. The most important aspect of this recording for Canty, however, is that for the first time we have been able to celebrate part of the rapidly growing corpus of contemporary music that has been of vital importance to us since we began our musical journey. Everything on this disc, old and new, is a world-premiere recording, reflecting our conviction that the musical interfaces between classical/traditional, ancient/modern, and east/west are permeable ground, rich and ripe for exploration" - so writes Rebecca Taverner, director of Canty, in her helpful booklet note.

When Rebecca Taverner speaks of the interfaces between ancient/modern, etc., being "permeable ground", she points both to the strengths and - no doubt unconsciously - to an area of weakness in this generally very rewarding disc. The first thing that should be stressed is that all concerned perform beautifully and that the recorded sound is superb. But, at times, it is the ‘sound' that one finds oneself listening to, rather than the music, rather than the musical interpretation of the text, by composer and performers. While I certainly wouldn't want to go so far as to say that the music here is homogenised, I do think, after a number of listenings, that there isn't quite enough stylistic differentiation between musical idioms - which are different even if related - and that there is a tendency to value beauty of sound over subtle negotiation with text. These are, after all, settings of texts which are often profoundly poetic, richly resonant with traditional imagery.

Having offered a few words of qualification, it is time to praise much of what is to be heard here. The programme opens beautifully with two prayers to St. Columba from the Inchcolm Antiphoner - one of the earliest surviving Scottish music manuscripts, from the first half of the fourteenth century, fragments of which are now in Edinburgh university Library - framing James MacMillan's setting of ‘Os mutorum', an antiphon for St. Columba taken from the same manuscript. Indeed the whole programme is well-designed in terms of connections, parallels and contrasts. Poetically speaking, a recurrent thread is of light in darkness, from the opening item's praise of St. Columba as "resplendent patron / and radiance of righteousness" through Joanne Metcalf's lovely ‘Shining Light', Rebecca Rowe's ‘There is nothing brighter than the sun' - an intriguing setting of words by Al Ghazali - the celebration of St. Columba as "a new sun / To illuminate the world with its rays / And give growth and life to the lands through its warmth" in the plainchant ‘A solis occasu', culminating in the cosmic imagery of the medieval text in praise of St. Kentigern, set in an English translation by James McCarthy (‘The stars in their Courses'), a saint "whose fame the squadrons / of heaven, the stars in their courses, / [...] proclaim to the Lord". Naturally there are counterbalancing images of darkness and difficulty, too - St. Gall lost amongst thickets of thorn, St. Kentigern enduring four days in "aquis frigidis".

Of the modern pieces, Rebecca Rowe's three-voice ‘There is nothing brighter than the sun' is a thing of radiant beauty and Tavener's ‘Two Hadiths' is striking for its use of the bray harp, which contribute its own distinctive textures to the composer's contemplative writing. Peter McGarr's setting of a text from the Carmina Gadelica makes striking use of the kind of heterophony which characterises traditional Gaelic psalm-singing.

The singers of Canty create a beautifully blended sound and William Taylor's performances leave nothing to be desired. While retaining the slight reservations made earlier in this review, I should stress that this is a CD I have enjoyed a good deal; still, given the nature of those reservations this is a CD best ‘dipped into' rather than listened to all the way through.

MusicWeb International
26 May 2011