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GRAMOPHONE (Awards Issue /2015)
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Reviewer: Fabrice Fitch


With the approach of the year’s end comes this smorgasbord of seasonal fare focusing on four of the 12 days of Christmas – Christmas itself, St Stephen’s, New Year and Epiphany. Mixing voices and instruments has always been part of Obsidienne’s modus operandi; here, the festive theme may account for the greater prominence of the latter. The narrow liturgical time span is offset by the wide range of repertory, which covers everything from Notre Dame-style organum and conductus to early Dufay, plainchant to English carols, and Italian laude to the French tenor motets of the Roman de Fauvel. The performances are lively and well judged for the most part, but in the opening sets (especially the one devoted to Christmas) the shifts of style and scorings can seem a little dated, perhaps better suited to the live performances for which the programme was originally devised than to the permanence of CD.


This reservation is less telling with the sets for Epiphany and St Stephen’s, in which instruments and mixed voices increasingly give way to a group of men singing one to a part. This is due to the change in focus from written to improvised polyphony, a common practice in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Its revival is one of today’s most exciting developments, bringing together scholarly study and practical performance. The singers of Obsidienne try their hand (so to speak) at a number of different styles (including improvised canon); and though possibly not every moment goes to plan, it is fascinating to listen to them thinking aloud. These latter tracks are worth the price of admission, especially to English audiences unlikely to hear such experiments in a live context. They reconnect us with a crucial facet of medieval and Renaissance musicians’ practice.


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