The Hilliard Ensemble: Perotin (ECM New Series 1385)


David James countertenor
John Potter tenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Mark Padmore tenor
Charles Daniels tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Paul Hillier baritone, director
Recorded September 1988, Boxgrove Priory, Sussex, England
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

There is a moment in the opening Viderunt omnes when, to signal the final section, its voices modulate to a higher space. This shift from gravid baritone- to tenor-driven majesty is for me one of the most sublime moments in all of music. Such transformative moments are what make many of the Hilliard Ensemble’s endeavors so enduring. In medieval music in particular, the enigmatic Hilliards have found a groove of sorts from which they seem reluctant to part. As Paul Hillier notes, these sounds represent a major development in the polyphonous “organum” typical of the ars antiqua style, breaking from the staid (though certainly no less “organic”) Gregorian mode. This fine disc metes out a hefty dose of the works of Magister Perotinus (fl. c. 1200), along with some worthy anonymous pieces to thicken the brew. Listening to this music, I cannot help but try to imagine the time and place of its conception. I can almost taste the air, feel the cold stone of gothic architecture on my fingertips and the swept floor beneath my sandaled feet. The voices glitter like facets of the same dusty light that once pierced arched windows and landed softly on solid pews.

This is music we approach impressionistically, seeing it first as a worldly sound before distinguishing local colors. The interpretations are restrained yet full of overwhelming power. The Alleluia posui adiutorium is a stunning example of Perotin’s craft. On the surface transcendent, the piece is also laden with paratextual significance. The pedal tones here are airy yet substantial and the brief lapses into chant are like translucent beads on a deftly interwoven chain. Dum sigillum, sung here by tenors John Potter and Rogers Covey-Crump, sounds like four voices compressed into two. They flit and fall, taking one step back for every two taken forward. The Alleluia nativitas is, like its companion piece, a finely wrought macramé. David James’s glorious voice has its day in Beata viscera, a Communion prayer (and Perotin’s only extant monophonic work) rising like censer smoke in a solitary alcove. Sederunt principes closes the disc on a fittingly supplicatory note.

On April 23, 2004 I had the fortunate experience of seeing the Hilliard Ensemble live at Wesleyan University, where they opened with the Viderunt in an otherwise eclectic program. The experience was very much like putting on this disc: the audience had almost no time to prepare for the sudden immersion that ensued the moment they took the stage. This is precisely what the home listener can expect. As always the Hilliards offer an impeccable performance that speaks of a deep and heartfelt commitment to every project they undertake, and it is this same commitment that I feel obligated to bring to the table every time I sit down to partake of this finest of recordings.

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