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The Kiss of a Divine Nature - The Contemporary Perotin
Disc 1: A film by Uli Aumuller - Music performed by the Hilliard Ensemble [93:24]
Disc 2: Bonus feature: The Perotin Symposium. - Who was Perotinus Magnus Myth or History/Perotinus Magnus - The Vision of the Film Project [116:20]
Disc 3: The Soundtrack with the Hilliard Ensemble [73:23]
Language: German with subtitles GB; F; SP; JP
Sound Format: PCM Stereo OD 5.1.075.5.1
Picture Format: 16.9
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100695 [360:00]

It is always an amazing experience to walk into any of the Romanesque cathedrals of Europe, but arguably none more so than Notre-Dame which is literally islanded in the hub of hectic Paris. At the time it was under construction a remarkable composer also lived and worked there. He has come down to be known, possibly under a pseudonym, as Magister Perotinus or Perotin.
 
The Hilliard Ensemble are far from strangers to his extraordinary music having, under the direction in those days of Paul Hillier, made a revelatory CD of his music back in 1988 on the ECM label (1385 837 751-2). That disc has never been bettered by anyone ... not even by themselves. It was with that in mind and knowing that the group is slightly differently formatted now, that I went straight to the third disc in the set, the bonus disc. This includes pieces by Perotin and those attributed to him, also recorded in 1988. There’s also some new material from a slightly earlier period by Leonin and from the St. Martial school of about 1150 which helps put Perotin’s genius into perspective.
 
Back in 1988 the revelatory experience of hearing this music sung with such commitment was stunning although many other performers had tackled it including David Munrow. One characteristic the Hilliard’s disc has is an incredible inner life, a real vitality, an overpowering joy and excitement. This is what makes the music live. It bounces and flows naturally and has, most importantly, forward momentum. It seems to know where it is going and gets there captivating the imagination with the fecundity of its ideas with its hockets and interplay of polyphony. However what I have found in some performances, and particularly I’m sorry to say on this bonus CD, is a dullness of rhythm. There is a lack of vitality, a lack of forward motion as if the performers are only aware of that moment and the one just gone. There is a too strong adherence to the modern-day bar line, so that, for want of a better word the music sounds boring, uninvolving and discontinuous. With this in the background it was with some trepidation that I put on the main film The Kiss of a Divine Nature.
 
The question of interpretation comes up early on. Three singers are in rehearsal working on the conductus ’Descendit de celis’. Dieter van de Motte the musicologist tries to persuade them to add a touch of ecstasy and improvisation to their performance but, sadly, without much success.
 
The film consists of a kind of detective investigation into Perotin, his milieu, the architecture especially of the early Gothic period c.1200, the nature of time, the liturgy, the Virgin Mary and the conception of Christ. This is done in a series of staged debates between musicologists and their supporters who sometimes get quite animated!
 
I suspect that the aim here might be to recreate the typical combative 12th Century lecture about which Peter Abelard wrote. Interspersed with this is the rehearsal and eventual presentation of a theatre work for two dancers directed by choreographer Johan Kvesnik. It appears to be based on a painting of the Annunciation by Filippo Lippi. The various outcomes include a still tableau and even reflections projected onto the naked backsides of the female dancers. The Hilliard ensemble sing various works, mostly complete, standing in a vast space, possibly a church. The scene is beautifully back-and forward-lit by colour projections.
 
The other bonus disc consists of two parts with the ‘The Perotin Symposium’ first. In the same way that the first bonus CD consists of music only and for the CD player this DVD consists of the aforementioned debates/lectures offered as a complete piece lasting about an hour. Incidentally for this, and for the main film you will need subtitles as everything is in fast-flowing German. Indeed the subtitles often go by at some speed; you might need to pause them. The discussion between musicologists and philosophers is exceedingly wide-ranging. At one point it touches on whether Perotin was an alien from outer space. Certainly his importance and his contrast with his predecessor Leonin are strongly emphasized. Perotin’s importance is stressed to the detriment of Leonin which I think is a great pity. Perhaps they haven’t heard Red Byrds evocative Leonin recordings on Hyperion (66944 and 67289).
 
The same CD contains a one hour long ‘The Vision of the Film Project’. This takes the form of a conversation led by director Uli Aumuller in which he leads us through the film discussing its inspiration and aims. This includes some footage not in ‘The Kiss of a Divine Nature’. I rather wish that I had watched it first as it not only acts as a useful introduction but also presents the ‘dramatis personae’, names which fled by almost unnoticed on the dimly lit screen in the film.
 
This whole period is quite fascinating and deserves this kind of detailed approach. I have a feeling though that the three disc set could alienate as many as it might fascinate. Some pre-knowledge and interest is vital. The fact is that in the general education of school pupils or students the 12th Century, the mini-renaissance, is hardly ever studied. Most people can enjoy Romanesque and early Gothic architecture. Most can even appreciate the poetry and prose of the period especially with its emphasis on Arthurian Romance. Many will thrill at the discovery of early fresco paintings. However  the fact remains that, for many, the vocal music of this period remains at best a puzzle and at worse boring, dull and annoying. I’m not sure if this film, even allowing for the presence of the Hilliard Ensemble, can really help but it’s certainly a start.
 
The problem for me - and I realize that this is quite personal - is that I cannot accept that we are anywhere near hearing the music of the 12th Century performed as it was heard at the time. I say this despite the various interpretations over the years which, as the film says, tell us more about the age in which they were recorded than about the music. Just supposing - and this is my final thought - that it might have sounded more like an eastern muezzin. Then compare this with the sound produced by a group of polite middle-aged singers fumbling to find the right tempo and insufferably more concerned with intonation than religious ecstasy.
 
Gary Higginson
 

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