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Stella Maris
ANON English 13th century; Flos regalis virginalis; Quem trina polluit; Dou way Robyn/Sancta Mater; Beata Viscera
NOTRE-DAME SCHOOL; O Maria. Stella maris; Veni Creator Spiritus
PEROTIN (fl. c. 1200) Dum sigillum
SUNGJI HONG (b. 1973) Missa Lumen de Lumine
Trio Medieval with John Potter
rec. Propstei St. Gerald, Feb 2005. DDD
ECM NEW SERIES 1929 476 3021 [65.46]


Medieval music performed by all-female groups is now becoming something of a ‘norm’. Perhaps that was why Anonymous 4 decided to hang up their boots last year.

As Nicky Losseff mentions in her very interesting booklet notes, there is not much evidence that nuns sang this music at all in the 13th and 14th century except in some isolated spots. In any event, we cannot, of course, ever have any idea of how it sounded at that time. It’s probably best not to go own that line.

Nevertheless some interpretative expectations and results have to be discussed and they may not always be palatable.

The disc starts well enough with a very fine English Rondellus, a sort of round or canon like ‘Sumer-is-icumen in’, except more complicated. This is a very clear and beautiful performance of a fine work. It’s worth trying to follow it as the manuscript is printed in the booklet. The only problem is that you will need a magnifying glass.

John Potter who is a fine bass, and the recording’s producer, sings the long plainchant notes in ‘O Maria, Stella maris’ one of the many pieces found in the Notre Dame polyphony of the Liber Magnus. ‘Dum sigillum’, which is heard later, is from the same manuscript and is attributed to Perotin.

Even by the time we reach track three ‘Quem trina polluit’ one is wondering if we might begin to have a change of tempo or mood. Surely by track 7 we should have but this track ‘Beata Viscera’ one of the so-called ‘Worcester Fragments’ sums up the problem. It is too slow, lacking in energy and full of pauses. In other words it is far too mannered and the similarity carries over into other performances here.

This came as quite a surprise to me especially when I listened again to Trio Medieval’s earlier CD ‘Soir dit Elle’ (2001) ECM New Series 461782-2. This disc I love and have played often. It comprises, as well other things, a lively, spirited and colourful performance of the ‘Missa Tournai’.

There is no doubt that Trio Medieval are superb singers both in vocal quality, musicality and in ensemble blend. All of this comes through in both discs, but on this new disc it’s as if they are appealing to the Classic fm mind of ‘Relaxing Classics’ in the late evening. Nothing is to be hurried or aggressive or arresting. All is to be calm and utterly beautiful, blissful but dull. Fine, if that’s what you want but for this listener it’s not what I want on every track of a CD. Medieval music covers as many emotions and fantasies as any period of musical history. These need to be brought out with inner vitality and musical intelligence. Church music of this period should not be seen as just suitable for the late evening modern comfort zone. Yet I realize that this is the product which ECM is often pedalling and disappointingly Trio Medieval has fallen into this rut.

The three part ‘Veni Creator’ comes off worst of all. At the very least it certainly needs more attack; The Hilliard ensemble take two minutes less in their version on ECM 1385 837 751-2. A sense of ‘sameness’ has by now taken hold. On the other hand the curious lullaby ‘Dou way Robyn’ comes off well with its rolling compound time and delicious harmonies so superbly rendered and pulled together.

The last twenty minutes of the programme is devoted to a curiosity: the setting of the Mass by the Korean Composer Sungji Hong, a name new to the catalogues and to me. This idea of ending the disc with a work especially composed for the Trio Medieval began with the inclusion of Ivan Moody’s much shorter ‘Words of the Angel’ on the earlier CD. About half of the booklet notes are devoted to some very useful and not too deeply analytical notes on the Sungji Hong piece.

In the case of this new piece it is interesting to play ‘spot the influences’ while at the same time realising what an unusual voice this composer has. The booklet notes can help. I won’t go into it in much detail but will just say how much I enjoyed this Mass especially the Gloria. This expands out of a single quasi-plainsong monody into rich, flowering three-part counterpoint which has a touch of the oriental pentatonic about it and sometimes a touch of organum. Often this music has typically folksy, modal lines and rhythms and then takes on chromatic inflections without ever seeming obviously to modulate. There is word-painting which may highlight certain phrases but does not express them emotionally in a romantic or literal sense as in the wonderful setting of ‘Cricifixus etiam pro nobis’ in the Creed. In other sections counterpoint predominates and at times a searching homophony is in the ascendant. The keening opening of the Sanctus is also memorable. The only sadness is that I cannot imagine this Mass, because it needs three outstanding performers, ever being performed liturgically.

I must add that the Trio Medieval is superb and the discipline learned from medieval music pays off abundantly in the Sungji Hong piece.

All texts are given but in typical ECM style, not translated. Why is this? Does it not fit in with the company’s image or can they not afford a translator? A listener coming especially to the early music for the first time might have found translations particularly welcome. The recording is always clear, rich and superb.

Gary Higginson

 

 



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