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Reviewer: Mary Berry
Marcel Pérès's Great Mystery of the Passion , in many ways a tremendous achievement, is, at the same time, a maddening and to some extent perverse addition to the growing repertoire of recordings of liturgical drama. In recent years, a great deal of scholarly work has been done in this field. The average listener, however, with but scanty knowledge of the problems involved, could not fail to be struck with admiration on listening to this performance, the skilled beauty of the voices, the highly dramatic and emotional content of the play , its well-rounded proportions and its apparent 'authenticity'. The style of singing-markedly influenced by the techniques of Greek cantors (why, incidentally?) - flows with ease and an abundance of vocal ornamentation that seems to come naturally from the performers. Pérès himself is extremely proficient in this kind of voice production and his team of singers is uniformly excellent. The frequent introduction of the ison, or drone, is made confidently and unselfconsciously. The organum-like accompaniments (parallel movement) and the descant seem perfectly natural. One quite unexpectedly contemporary note is heard when the weeping women of Jerusalem produce a fantastically beautiful but totally modern-sounding keening, with strange and wonderful harmonies. A meeting of the centuries, indeed, in this one performance!
Superficially, then, this amounts to a highly successful production. But is it what it says it is? To probe further we must refer the work of Pérès back to the Carmina burana manuscript itself, Munich , Bayerische Staatsbibliothek MS Clm 4660 + 4660a. Structurally, the play, as it appears in the manuscript, is complex, unwieldy, episodic. Pérès was probably right to attempt some streamlining. He omits all the opening episodes, the Calling of the Apostles, the Curing of the Blind Man, Zachaeus being host to Jesus. He leaves out two of the five Palm Sunday processional chants, the two Pueri antiphons with their neumed incipits. Later on, he omits Simon the Pharisee's invitation to Jesus. Most of the rest still stands, but Pérès, more questionably this time, has expanded the play quite substantially, introducing lavish quantities of additional material, amounting to almost half of the total playing time.
This extraneous material consists mainly of Lenten and Passion hymns , graduals, tracts and responsories. They probably do contribute to the editor's stated purpose of " welding the scenes together during a staging of the work" (insert-note). None the less , the average listener is likely to be misled into imagining they were really part of the original. Needless to say, they do not figure in the manuscript and have had to be drawn from other sources - the Graduate Triplex , perhaps, with Pérès's own original interpretation? We are not told. Then again, the manuscript play is plentifully supplied with rubrics - liturgical 'stage directions', telling each 'actor' what to do. Pérès sets a number of these to music, and also several of his own interpolations culled from the Gospel accounts, and has them sung by a Narrator. This helps to convey the action to an audience of CD listeners deprived of the sight of the dramatis personae performing live in a church. The effect is somewhat similar to a Passion narration. Pérès, unable to restrict himself here to the simple formulae of reading tones , often departs dramatically from the norm . When he does stick to them, however, the result is terse and telling , as in the flagellation scene. Again , there is more than a chance that the average listener will find it hard to distinguish between what is suggested by the manuscript and what is pure Pérès.
These thoughts lead naturally to one crucial consideration: the deciphering of the unheightened neumes of the manuscript. Pérès recognized that the musical transcriptions would present major problems: indeed, this work would demand hours of patient labour and a close comparative study of many sources besides the Carmina burana manuscript. To complicate matters further , some pieces are fully neumed , whereas others only have neumes for a word or two. Other items where singing is explicitly indicated , lack music altogether: in these cases the missing music would have to be supplied.
extra-liturgical rhyming Latin and German pieces, those, for example, in the
scene where Mary Magdalene is buying cosmetics from the merchant before her
conversion, may all be found in other sources and can therefore be easily
checked. The rest of the music, mainly a web of liturgical items, may be
reconstructed , without too much difficulty, from existing sources indicating
precise pitches, always taking into account any slight variants suggested by the
neumes. Pérès allows himself a very free hand here , offering some rather
controversial interpretations heavy with embellishment and even occasionally
departing from the accepted modality. Space prevents me from going into too much
detail: I will simply take one outstanding example. At the end of the drama
there are three laments, the most famous of which is Godefroy of St Victor's
Planctus ante nescia (twelfth-century), which has been the object of much
scholarly scrutiny. It exists in numerous sources: John Stevens (1986) gives a
transcription from Evreux ; Dobson and Harrison (1979) set out comparative
transcriptions from Evreux, Rouen and Paris. Harrison adds a further
transcription of his own from the Carmina burana manuscript. There is
clearly a wide consensus of agreement in all these sources as to the shape of
the melody, and the scholars concur in demonstrating that this wonderful piece
is composed in the G mode , its poignancy due, no doubt, to its powerful
tritonic effects that so puzzled the monks of Solesmes . In his transcription
Pérès, as one would expect , introduces much additional vocal embellishment; but
also , more drastically, he stretches the range, converting it into an E mode
with cadences on the lower semitone. He thus completely transforms the modal
character of the piece. How can we tell who is right? It seems to me, though,
that if Pérès is to fly in the face of such reputable scholars he simply must
give us his reasons. Is this truly the great Passion Play from the Carmina
burana manuscript, or is it something else?