A chants encounter

April 17, 1994|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

In pop recordings, listeners look for catchy melodies, seductive rhythms and expressive voices. In classical recordings, they want expert musicianship, fidelity to the score and an understanding of the music's spirit.

But what should they seek in a Gregorian chant recording?

There aren't any big names in the field, apart from the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, whose "Chant" (Angel 55138) is soaring up the pop charts. Nor are there any familiar favorites to use as a guide; unless you've spent time in monasteries, the titles will be all Greek -- or, in this case, Latin -- to you.

There isn't even a composer in the strict sense of the term. Although the Gregorian chants take their name from Pope Gregory I, they actually predate his papacy (590 to 604) by more than a century. His name was affixed to the form because it was he who ordered them transcribed and collected.

There is no harmony in this music, just a modal melodic line sung in unison. Moreover, because the chants are offered as prayer, the melody is intended to follow and amplify the text -- there's no room to show off in this music.

What makes the "Chant" stand out is a combination of elements. For one thing, it's recorded so the listener can hear the cavernous dimensions of the Abbey at Santo Domingo de Silos even in the tiniest of rooms; for another, the monks themselves sing beautifully. But mainly, their hushed, angelic voices convey enough tranquillity and insight that one needn't know Latin to get a sense of what these chants convey.

Here's a look at some other Gregorian chant recordings:

* "Gregorian Chant." Choralschola of the Niederaltaicher Scholaren, Konrad Ruhland, director. (Sony 53899). Well recorded, with strong voices and exceptional diction. This album doesn't quite have the spirit of "Chant," but it has plenty of musical merit.

* "Gregorian Chant." Choralschola der Weiner Hofburgkapelle, P. Hubert Dopf S. J., director. (Philips 432 089). Although it lacks the spatial resonance of the Niederaltaicher Scholaren recording, does capture the contemplative aspect of the chants. At times, the silence between phrases is as eloquent as the singing itself.

* "Gregorian Chants, Eternal Chants." The Benedictine Monks of the Abbey at Ganagobie. (Milan 35653). A somewhat more modern approach is in evidence here, as the monks at Ganagobie alternate mass vocals with call-and-response sequences. Interesting, but purists may be put off by the organ selections.

* "Chant Gregorien." The Deller Consort, Alfred Deller, director. (Harmonia Mundi 190235.37, three discs). No monks here -- instead, we have counter-tenor Alfred Deller and a sextet of early music specialists doing the honors. As a result, this recording brings out more of the music than the text, which isn't such a bad thing -- particularly if you're more interested in listening than praying.

* "Gregorian Chant." The Benedictine Monks of the Abbey of Saint Maurice & Saint-Maur, Clervaux. (Philips 432 506, two discs). A bit of a hodgepodge, this recording finds the monks augmenting the chant's monophony with tasteful -- but anachronistic -- organ accompaniment. Still, those who feel traditional plainsong is a tad monotonous may find welcome respite in this.

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