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Stephen HARTKE (b. 1952)
Tituli (1999) [42.06] (1)
Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain (2000) [18.21] (2)
Hilliard Ensemble (David James (counter-tenor), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor), Steven Harrold (tenor), Gordon Jones (baritone))
Andreas Hirtreiter (tenor) (1)
Michelle Makarski (violin) (1)
Lynn Varten (percussion) (1)
Javier Diaz (percussion) (1)
Donald Crockett (conductor) (1)
Recorded February 2003, Mechanics Hall, Worcester, MA, USA
ECM NEW SERIES 1861 4760512 [60.28]

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The Hilliard Ensemble have had a reputation as an early music ensemble since the 1980s. In 1988 they premiered Arvo Pärtís Passio and in 1994 they held their own composition competition. Since then they have been equally known for their contemporary performances as well as their various experiments in combining early and contemporary.

American composer Stephen Hartke was a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome in 1993 and during his time there came up with the idea of writing a piece based on the Latin texts of surviving Roman inscriptions, many of them fragmentary. This developed into an idea for a work for the Hilliard Ensemble accompanied by violin and percussion. Rather than commissioning the work, the composer approached the ensemble (through the offices of violinist Michelle Makarski) and the Hilliard Ensemble premiered the work in 1999.

The title, Tituli, refers to the Latin name for the inscriptions. There are seven movements with texts from a variety of sources. Some, like the opening Lapis Niger are profoundly fragmentary and only odd words are comprehensible. Others such as Columna rostrata and Elogium parvuli tell eloquent stories; Columna rostrata or Triumphal Column is description of a Roman triumph in war, Elogium parvuli or Epitaph for a small boy is a profoundly moving text for a boy who died at six years old. The rather laconic fifth movement consists of the bilingual (Latin and Greek) inscription from a shop sign, the shop itself specialising in inscriptions. The sixth movement consists of an assemblage of oracular and fortune telling texts, the final movement is a selection of inscriptions found on portable objects, including some lines in Etruscan.

Hartke has set the work for five man ensemble (Hilliard Ensemble plus and extra tenor), violin (Michelle Makarski) and percussion (Lynn Vartan and Javier Diaz). The opening movement sets the tone for the whole piece as the text arises from a quiet miasma of musical ideas as if the fragments are appearing out of the mist. Though some of the texts are narratives, albeit incomplete ones, Hartke seems to be exploring the idea of ourselves looking at and exploring the fragments of Roman civilisation.

His style is basically tonal but with a highly chromatic polish. His basic textual settings are frequently homophonic, but rendered rather opaque by the composerís preference for dark, dense chords. The texture is lightened by the alternation between the homophony of the singers and the sparse textures of the instrumentalists and solo voices. The result is to create a distinctive atmosphere that owes much to the aura of the words Hartke is setting. In the more extended texts there are moments of word painting and Hartke uses polyphonic textures and multiple rhythms to create an opacity to match the opaque chords. But his skill at mixing his resources means that the result comes over as elegant and sparsely orchestrated rather than unpleasantly dense. There are loud passages, but the overall tenor of the work is understated and foggy. The instruments are used to comment on and complement the vocal material rather than accompany it.

The Hilliard Ensemble sing with their accustomed accuracy; Hartkeís writing needs the sort of pin-point precision of tuning and tone which an early music group like the Hilliard contribute to such contemporary pieces. Age has not withered the distinctive tones of David Jamesís counter-tenor and his voice lends a familiar aura to the pieces; this is both an advantage and disadvantage as his voice is an acquired taste. Familiar Hilliard devotees need have no doubts about this record; those not familiar with their style might be advised to listen first. But nothing is done without style and familiarity; this is a performance of a distinctive work which shows that the performers have absorbed the style of Hartkeís work.

Whilst working on Tituli the Hilliard Ensemble asked Hartke for a work for just the four of them; the result is Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain - an 18 minute setting of a poem by the Japanese writer Takamura Kotaro (1883Ė1956) in a translation by Hiroaki Sato. The poem deals with the effect that the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris has on a drunken Japanese during a storm. Using just four voices, Hartke produces an array of textures and whilst sticking to the sound-world from Tituli; the result is an effective, if understated tour de force which is only marred by the rather variable diction of the singers. As they are singing in English, it would have been nice if I could have followed the piece without recourse to the printed text.

These are tricky pieces; Hartkeís style is one that rewards repeated listening and the music will not necessarily appeal to those admirers of the more sing-along aspects of some of their early discs such as Officium. But this one is highly recommended to anyone who is interested in how a contemporary composer and an early music group have produced a pair of works which manage to remain rooted in the music of today but explore and evoke past worlds.

Robert Hugill

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