The Hilliard Ensemble: Codex Speciálník (ECM New Series 1504)

 

The Hilliard Ensemble
Codex Speciálník

David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded January 1993, Stadtkirche Gönningen
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

While the members of the Hilliard Ensemble have nary a stumble in their entire ECM track record, with Codex Speciálník they have left one of their most lasting footprints. Recorded during a veritable golden age of the ensemble’s relationship with the label, the album extracts its material from the eponymous “special songbook,” found in a Prague monastery and dated to around 1500. Said manuscript encompasses a wide array of music in two to four parts from composers renowned and arcane, if not unknown, and proves to be a rich source of Renaissance polyphony. The more compelling pieces tend to be anonymous, such as the Exordium quadruplate that opens the Hilliards’ carefully handpicked program. Its lilting quality speaks for the whole, weaving its lines with deceptive fluidity. The hymn-like In natali domini is especially uplifting in its evocation of the nativity and is sung in block chords with occasional chromatic ornaments. Yet the most striking tracks would have to be the expertly constructed duets (the anonymous Congaudemus pariter and Salve mater gracie; Petrus de Grudencz’s Presidiorum erogatrix). The sheer scope of their implied space is awe-inspiring to say the least. It is as if they were the seeds of farther-reaching compositions with invisible roots. Other pieces by Grudencz, and especially his Pneuma eucaristiarum, make for some of the album’s most touching moments, while the gorgeous Chorus iste of Johannes Touront exhibits a captivating interplay of registers. Another treasure is the Missa Petite Camusette, of which the Kyrie and Gloria are the most invaluable. Finishing the album is Josquin Desprez’s unbelievably gorgeous Ave Maria setting, performed here to perfection.

The Hilliards never fail to bring a measured passion to their performance style. Their individual commitment is palpable in every pitch-perfect moment (note, for example, Rogers Covey-Crump’s divine intonations in the Sophia nascitur and David James’s soulful restraint in the Magnum miraculum). An album like this allows us to appreciate the development of music in new ways. We see in it the heart of an unfathomable corpus, only the skin of which we recognize, even as we discover an undeniable part of who we are in its circadian rhythm.

One thought on “The Hilliard Ensemble: Codex Speciálník (ECM New Series 1504)

  1. I’m just listening to this CD and reading this review, both beautiful. It made me realise that I heard few of these pieces (including the wonderful ‘In Natali Domini’) last year at a wonderful Hilliard Christmas concert in Dresden… and I also thought that maybe not everyone knows that Petrus de Grudencz was a Polish medieval composer who is also known as Piotr z Grudziądza 🙂

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