Stephen Hartke: Tituli / Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain (ECM New Series 1861)


Stephen Hartke
Tituli/Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Andreas Hirtreiter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Michelle Makarski violin
Lynn Vartan marimba, cymbals, shaker, cup bells, wood block
Javier Diaz marimba, cymbals, shaker, cup bells, wood block
Donald Crockett conductor
Recorded February 2003 at Mechanics Hall, Worecester, Massachusetts

Cease now, my mother, to torment yourself
in vain sobs of wretchedness all the day,
for such grief has not befallen you alone:
the same has befallen mighty kings as well.

From the First Punic War in Tituli (1999) to the dawn of World War I in Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain (2000), the music of American composer Stephen Hartke is firmly rooted in the intersection between the spatial and the temporal. It is about the vicarious presence of bygone eras engendered by their ruins; it is language as architecture, and architecture as history.

The Old Latin and Etruscan fragments of Tituli (scored for five solo male voices, violin, and two percussionists) were inscribed on pre-Imperial Roman artifacts: oracular and sacred law texts, cryptic offerings, and even a Palermo shop sign pass the Hilliards’ lips in a deft melodic oratory. In the opening “Lapis Niger,” every word rolls over the next with the perpetuity of an incoming tide. “Columna rostrata,” an account of Rome’s first major victory in Carthage, is the most dramatic section and rises like its titular structure into an audible testament of a fledgling empire. The tenderest moments are to be found in “Elogium parvuli,” an epitaph written for a six-year-old boy named Optatus, and for whom the music works its way darkly through every powerful sentiment in a beautiful twelve-minute lustration. The music of Tituli traces the contours of every word with archeological care. Violin and percussion make careful appearances, never intruding upon the texts at hand, and leave their deepest traces behind in the final two sections.

Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain for countertenor, two tenors, and baritone takes its direct inspiration from a poem by Japanese poet and sculptor Takamura Kōtarō (1883-1956), and appears here in a striking English translation (with some duplicate lines in Japanese) by the inimitable Hiroaki Sato. When I saw the Hilliard Ensemble live in 2004, they closed with this piece, leaving the audience spellbound. The concert began with a motet by Pérotin, which was written to be sung inside Notre-Dame, whereas here the sentiments are of a secular artist seeking shelter from the elements in the cathedral’s looming magnificence. Takamura cannot help but think of his homeland: “Storms are like this in my country, Japan, too,” he muses. “Only, we don’t see you soaring.” The chromatic flavor of Hartke’s setting surprises at every turn, treating each stanza as its own compositional bead on a long poetic necklace.

I have been a great admirer of Hartke since I first heard Michelle Makarski and Ronald Copes’s spirited rendition of the blues-inspired Oh Them Rats Is Mean in My Kitchen on New World Records. His acute and colorful music is resilient like a tightly knit sweater and just as comfortable to try on for size. His choral music represents a big development in a mostly instrumental oeuvre and these landmark performances are so precise and well recorded that one can almost smell the patina of age they wear. The Hilliards sing with unbridled conviction and even do a competent job with their Japanese enunciation, while the instrumentalists play with a subdued electricity all their own. This being ECM’s first Super Audio CD (SACD) recording, it practically begs to be listened to on the right equipment. Either way, its energy comes through just the same, taming our desire for the old and the new in one go.

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