Byrd: Motets and Mass for four voices (ECM New Series 1512)

William Byrd
Motets and Mass for four voices

The Theatre of Voices
Judith Nelson soprano
Drew Minter countertenor
Paul Elliot tenor
Paul Hillier baritone, artistic director
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Recorded February 1992, The Cathedral of the Transfiguration, Toronto
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Paul Hillier

William Byrd (1543-1623) has been called the greatest English composer, an arbiter of the sublime and master of his craft. And while discerning early music listeners have a fair number of recordings to choose from in order to put any stake into this claim, this offering from ECM is as sensitive an introduction as any into all things Byrd.

Among the selection of motets that inaugurates the album, Byrd’s gradual “Oculi ominum” stands out for its elegance. Yet it is the Mass for Four Voices that kneels so humbly at the album’s center. Composed in 1592, a time when Catholic services were deemed illegal under the banner of the Reformation, the Mass was never performed in a proper church until the nineteenth century. This backstory lends a clandestine sweetness to the work’s appearance. Its plaintive Kyrie and Gloria journey into the stunning tapestry that is its Credo, while the Sanctus and Benedictus lean back in a delicate arch of praise and humility toward an alluring, if not cryptic, Agus Dei. The notes are generally low- to mid-range, with peaks used only sparingly. As it is programmed here, the Mass is interleaved with introspective keyboard works (played here on organ) and the motet O sacrum convivium. Such a fragmentary approach emphasizes its permeability, its invisibility (the work was believed lost from 1822 to 1888).

Not to be overshadowed, however, is the handful of contemporaneous works that rounds out the program. These no-less-powerful statements from Thomas Tallis, John Taverner, Richard Edwards, and John Sheppard throw Byrd’s place in musical history into further relief. Tallis’s O Ye Tender Babes is especially poignant, harkening back to a time when musical freedom was relatively unbounded.

The Theatre of Voices has a sound that is quite distinct from the Hilliard Ensemble, ECM’s a cappella mainstay. Their vocal lines are crystal clear, allowing us to parse every moment of Byrd’s glorious grammar. The music is elegiac, even as it falls inward, charting a highly individual spiritual territory that is all the more enriched by Byrd’s attention to textual colors, transcending form as it does by unhinging the cages of his own vocabulary. There is always an audible axle around which his music revolves. Every note engenders a new spin of the wheel, and with it an unrequited aspiration. This process is ever bolstered by the constant wind of human breath, every inhalation and exhalation of which marks the music’s trajectory with the utmost craftsmanship. This is neither the alchemy of a Guillaume de Machaut nor the dense weave of a Robert Fayrfax, but rather its own foray into unraveled grace.

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Arvo Pärt: Miserere (ECM New Series 1430)


Arvo Pärt

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Paul Hillier director
Orchester der Beethovenhalle Bonn
Western Wind Chamber Choir
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Sarah Leonard soprano
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Pierre Favre percussion
Recorded September 1990, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London (Miserere, Sarah Was Ninety Years Old)
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Recorded December 1990 at Beethovenhalle, Bonn (Festina Lente)
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For reasons perhaps too numerous to list here in full, Arvo Pärt’s Miserere remains my most cherished of the Estonian composer’s ever-growing book of masterworks. Suffice it to say that its magic lies in its stillness. For such an expansive piece—scored as it is for choir, soloists, organ, and ensemble—it is remarkably introspective. Its opening invocation of Psalm 51 fleshes out a corpus of spoken language made melody. A statement from the clarinet follows every word, not so much commentative as dialogic. Once harmony is introduced in the second vocal line, the pauses become even more gravid and rich in spatial detail. The soloists gather up all remaining threads, persevering through mounting tensions with the blunt instrument that is the interjected “Dies irae.” This is more than just a thunderous meditation. It is a wringing-out of the heavens, the earth a mouth gaping to catch all that drips down. Voices burst like supernovas around thunderous timpani, crashing into the oceans until only a tubular bell is left to caress the newly razed soil. The heartfelt baritone of Gordon Jones describes the ruins with mellifluous sensitivity. A wind section breathes through every pause like a ghostly antiphon and provides a dark interlude. As the soloists arise en masse, David James flares with his resplendent countertenor colors, whereas the deep intonation of soprano Sarah Leonard marvels amid the fumes of destruction. Another stunning interlude, this time introduced by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent on organ, coaxes the winds into more independent recitations, accentuated by a crystalline tambourine and triangle. We arrive to an a cappella passage that is transfiguration incarnate, each soloist pawing the air like a sleeping lion. The winds slog through the valleys, heavy sins in tow, while voices linger in the firmament. Leonard is unmatched in her ability to put her entire being into a high note, and the moment one finds at the 30:13 mark is perhaps her finest example. This touches off one of the most breathtaking lifts ever set to music, as all the voices scale a ladder of chaos into a world of silent order. Miserere is all about the “in between,” the lesson of interrupted thought, and our fearful awe over the mystery of creation.

Festina Lente (1988) for orchestra and harp is dedicated to Manfred Eicher. The title means “make haste slowly” and acknowledges the importance of flux in any creative endeavor. Like Eicher’s own aesthetic path, it is a resonant spiral that goes both downward and upward.

Awe is the operative concept in Sarah Was Ninety Years Old (1977/90). Drums cycle through an arithmetic exploration of high and low beats, cradling wordless passages from tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and John Potter. This process repeats until the organ makes its humble entrance, even as Leonard pushes her voice to dizzying heights. One would think such a piece might escape today’s trigger-happy musical culture, but I have recently encountered the drums from Sarah, as effective as they are surprising, being sampled by German electronic artist HECQ in his track “Aback,” off the wonderful album Night Falls.

This disc has been with me for nearly half my life. The Miserere in particular drew me into a love of singing. As a teenager I used to spend hours singing along alternately with the baritone and alto lines until the booklet yellowed and nearly fell apart from excessive handling (I even went so far as to purchase a backup, just so I would have a pristine copy on my shelf). After so much physiological engagement with its textual and aural shapes, it has become an integral part of my person. Listening reminds me that with each new step I take on the path to independence, I grow closer to who I have always been: a human soul sustained by all others in a world where time is infinitely malleable, and the only thing that’s real is my surrender to the moment.

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>> Christopher Bowers-Broadbent: Trivium (ECM 1431 NS)

Paul Hillier: Proensa (ECM New Series 1368)


Paul Hillier

Paul Hillier voice
Stephen Stubbs lute, psaltery
Andrew Lawrence-King harp, psaltery
Erin Headley vielle
Recorded February 1988, Stuttgart
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“I’ll write a song without great force
and not of me or other source
and not of love or youth, of course:
nothing at all.
I’ll write it sleeping on my horse
so’s not to fall.”

–Guilhèm de Peitieus

The title of this fascinating project from Paul Hillier refers to the southern French region of Provence, where the lyric poets of the troubadour tradition from which the album culls its music once flourished. Utilizing extant fragments of Provençal texts and melodies, Hillier and his musicians reconstruct a visceral program of songs.

As the earliest troubadour whose work still survives, the appearance of Guilhèm de Peitieus (fl. 1071-1126) first on the program makes for an intuitive choice. Farai un vers is the fifth of his eleven extant songs. The arrangement opens with a delicately strummed psaltery, stretching and detuning in reaction to Hillier’s narration as Stephen Stubbs’s lute creeps in from some unseen realm. The effect is unsettling, rather like the imminent death related in the poem being spoken. Hillier luxuriates in each word like a story in and of itself. “My song is sung, I don’t know how,” he says in the last verse, walking a path without melody with words that are nothing but melodious.

Reis glorios, by Giraut de Bornelh (c. 1138-1215), is a planh, or secular lament, written in honor of Raimbaut d’Aurenga (c. 1147-1173). Known as the inventor of the trobar leu, or “light” style, Giraut showcases his formulaic precision in this piece. With a refrain of “Fair companion…” he mourns the King’s absence: singing would seem to matter little in a world without him. This song evolves over peaks and valleys, drawing out a luscious voice from their depths, and ends with a beautiful solo from Erin Headley on the vielle.

Raimon de Miraval (fl. 1180-1220) was also a master of trobar leu. Of his extant collection of forty-five songs, an unprecedented twenty-two have retained their melodies. Unlike his contemporaries, Raimon was more interested in the “courtliness” of courtly love than in the love it both ennobled and constrained. In Aissi cum es genserpascors, Raimon is woefully fed up with the ways in which women of the court discourage their mercy-seeking friends, thereby permitting access to the most unworthy suitors. “Thus courtly song falls silent,” he laments, “and out come accusations and mad tumult.” Knowing full well that he could rat these ladies out, he would rather plead for mercy himself “From her who has the savor of all goodness,” thus implicating himself in the vicious cycle he so despises. The music begins softly and pointillistically, condensing into the resonant strum of Andrew Lawrence-King’s harp. From this cloud a voice issues, singing its self-deprecating song. The music is dynamic, if secondary to the language it supports, and fades once the voice has spent its spell.

Marcabru (fl. 1130-1150) is among the earliest known troubadours. His poetry is critical—at times lewdly so—of aristocracy and what he saw to be its twisted concept of love. Of his works that survive there are four melodies, in addition to three possible contrafacta (i.e., melodies interchangeable with more than one text). In L’autrier una sebissa, written as a pastorela (an often humorous Occitan lyric known for depicting knights’ attempts at seducing shepherdesses), the prototypical shepherdess refuses the advances of a knight for reasons of class. He tries a variety of tactics with which to win her over, but to no avail. “I am pained because the cold pierces you,” he says. To which she quips,

“Thanks to God and my nurse,
It does not concern me if the wind ruffles my hair,
For I am cheerful and healthy.”

He offers his company for her loneliness, of which she expresses no remorse. Perhaps she is of noble extraction? But alas, she sees her entire family “going back to sickle and plow.” He chalks up their coupling to the ways of nature, only to be met with the following admonition:

“The fool seeks his foolishness,
The courtly, courtly adventures,
And the peasant boy, the peasant girl;
Wisdom is lacking in any place (circumstance)
Where moderation is not observed,
So say the ancients.”

Whereas moments before the knight had proclaimed her unmatched beauty, he know declares her to harbor the most deceitful heart in the land. This elicits her cryptic final word:

“Sir, the owl promises you
That one man gapes before the painting
While the other expects reward.”

Such songs were a direct commentary on what Marcabru saw as lust’s inherent absurdity. This song has a catchy melodic lilt to it, consisting of refrains interlaced with instrumental interludes. Hillier carries full weight here through a melody that lingers long after its consummation.

Bernart de Ventadorn (fl. 1145-1180), master of trobar leu and formalizer of cansos (standard three-part songs), boasts forty-five extant poems, of which eighteen also have music. Be m’an perdut arises from a gorgeous harp solo. Voice and lute double each other throughout this repetitive lament of lost love. Hillier sings:

“Like some great trout that dashes to the bait
Until he feels love’s hook, all hot and blindly
I rushed toward too much love, too rash to wait,
Careless, till ringed in by love’s flames I find me
Seared as by furnace fires upon a grate.”

These post facto realizations tug at the heartstrings, as relevant as ever in their ability to elicit the listener’s concern. The only way in which one may find joy in this pain, Bernart tells us, is to embrace it:

“In luck and honor, let her still be blest,
And I her lover, liege and servant ever
Whether that makes her joyful or distressed.”

I daresay most of us can hear an echo of our own experience in these words, if not also in the way they are sung.

Can vei la lauzeta, also by Bernart, opens like the previous song, save for the added presence of a vielle droning in the background. The speaker of the poem sees a skylark, whereupon he feels great envy for the rapture the bird so readily enjoys:

“Alas, I thought I’d grown so wise;
In love I had so much to learn:
I can’t control this heart that flies
To her who pays love no return.”

As a result, he swears off women forever. “Now that I distrust them, one and all,” he asserts, “I’ve learned too well they’re all the same,” even as we know he will fall again. The music is in a Dorian mode that captures the destructive spiral of its subject.

Of Peire Vidal (fl. 1175-1205) we also have forty-five songs, twelve with melodies. Pos tornatz sui is a song of contradictions, of finding solace in life’s tribulations:

“Here is joy for all my tears;
Boldness springs from my worst fears;
Having lost, I’ve gained much more
And though beaten, won my war.”

Through every foul turn Peire finds a pathway to change. This is, I would argue, the most spiritual poem represented here, insofar as it acknowledges the impermanence of human concerns over illusionary social allegiances.

By the end of the Crusades the barons of southern France were financially and emotionally drained, leaving no resources for the patronization of song (for more on this, see Robert Kehew’s introduction to Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours). It was in this climate that Guiraut Riquier (fl. 1254-1292), considered the last of the Provençal troubadours, composed Be’m degra de chantar (“It Would Be Best If I Refrained From Singing”), in which he signals the passing of the troubadourian era:

“Now no art is less admired
Than the worthy craft of song.
These days the nobles’ tastes have run
To entertainments less inspired.
Wailing mingles with disgrace:
All that once engendered praise
From the memory has died:
Now the world is mostly lies.”

I can think of no more powerful statement to capture the demise of this rich musical art, and Hillier appropriately speaks it without the company of instruments.

If any single word could be applied to this album, it would be “haunting.” This is not to imply that it is a particularly “dark” album, but one that seems to occupy a space uninhabitable by the living. This music breathes at the very edges of our consciousness, which is perhaps why it is so vocally driven, for only through the frailty of the voice can its strengths be expressed. The language is similarly peripheral, with its shades of cognates and other etymological minutae. The arrangements get under the listener’s skin, evoking an atmosphere at once so antiquated as to be unrecoverable while also so modern that it could exist at no other time but the (recorded) present. The spirit of the music is easy to see, if difficult to place, for it is something felt on a physiological level, residing in our sense of collective history. The music unfolds in a way that is always aware of its origins, leaving us to question our own.

<< Masqualero: Aero (ECM 1367)
>> Heiner Goebbels: Der Mann im Fahrstuhl/The Man In The Elevator (ECM 1369)

Arvo Pärt: Passio (ECM New Series 1370)

Arvo Pärt

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Lynne Dawson soprano
Michael George bass
Elizabeth Layton violin
Melinda Maxwell oboe
Elisabeth Wilson cello
Catherine Duckett bassoon
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Western Wind Chamber Choir
Paul Hillier conductor
Recorded March 1988, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London
Engineers: Peter Laenger, Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Sometimes music arrests you the moment it begins. Arvo Pärt’s Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem of 1982 is just such a piece. Its opening proclamation speaks directly to the heart. Although the music is rooted in St. John’s Gospel, one need not be a believer to feel its spiritual tug. Pärt’s is one of an outstanding line of St. John Passions, most notably those of Orlande de Lassus (1580), Heinrich Schütz (1666), J. S. Bach (1724), and more recently of James MacMillan (2008). Pärt’s music is distinct from these in that it is so uniquely situated both in and out of its own time. His setting harks back to the monophony of the spoken word and accordingly makes us of an antiphonal structure determined by the rhythms and dynamics inherent in the Latin text. Passio is scored for bass and tenor soloists (as Jesus and Pilate, respectively), an SATB quartet as the refracted evangelist, choir, and a modest assortment of winds, strings, and organ. Under the sensitive direction of Paul Hillier, the musicians achieve an utterly breathtaking unity of diction and tone throughout the entire unbroken 70-minute duration.

Microtonal harmonies dominate the lead solos as the piece leads in from its captivating intro, rendered all the more dialogic with the countertenor’s entrance. The sopranic evangelist adds a feathery fringe to an already gauzy sound, even as it needles the patchwork it borders. The voices build into ascendant clusters against occasional commentary from woodwinds. Michael George is heartwrenching in the title role and sings with an almost orthodox flair. The higher voices work their way into compact triangles in a tessellation of strings and throats as winds weave their way through with the surety of fish swimming through water. A shaft of light cuts through the solace as the organ blossoms with fuller force and the entire choir bursts forth with flowering tendrils of fire, hurtling massive emotions into the cosmos. From this dense overgrowth emerge clusters of voices in a far-reaching conversation. The piece evolves in textually ordered sections, using its own remnants to build new vocabularies along the way. As such, the music feels “recited” more than played (not unlike the sacred works of Alexander Knaifel), gathering energy from the very blessing of articulation and peaking as that energy becomes concentrated when bid to be sung. Vocal lines bleed into one another, brought to life by the connective tissue of faith that flows through them, covering the score’s skeletal structure with skin while leaving stigmata untouched. These brief moments, during which the full weight of the assembled performers comes crashing down, are simply earth shattering and leave us effectively stilled for the quieter contemplations in which they are housed. This album is filled with moments of heart-stopping beauty: a high note from Lynne Dawson at 25:09, John Potter’s solo 90 seconds later, the chromatic climb from David James at 40:40 (and another at 54:11), the proclamation at 58:50, and of course the glorious final minute that leaves us spellbound.

One of the Estonian composer’s most beloved works, Passio is an epitome of the tintinnabuli style and ranks alongside such masterpieces as his Stabat Mater and Miserere. While Passio treats each section of text as its own poetic enclosure, a certain continuity casts the entire work in a light of repentance, a planetary prostration at the feet of something so almighty yet so pliant that only music can even begin to express in human terms that which is anything but.

Of the small handful of versions available on disc, this is the first and most definitive. A manifold approach to the recording is evident in every aspect, striking an ideal balance between intimacy and sheer vastness of sound. Some may be put off by a single long track that offers little respite for the overwhelmed listener, but the rewards that await us at the end far outweigh the patience required to get there.

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