The Hilliard Ensemble: Transeamus (ECM New Series 2408)

Transeamus

The Hilliard Ensemble
Transeamus

David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 2012, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

The illustrious Hilliard Ensemble ends its decades-long tenure with ECM, and with the world of performance, in a program of 15th-century English carols and motets for two, three, and four voices. Since debuting on the label with 1989’s Perotin, countertenor David James, tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and John Potter, and baritone Gordon Jones have enchanted with their peerless blend of timbres, equal interest in contemporary and early music, and scholarly sheen. In 1998 Steven Harrold filled the venerable shoes of Potter, who would go on to strengthen his leadership of the Dowland Project (see, for example, Night Sessions) and pursue alluringly off-the-map endeavors such as Being Dufay. Harrold joined ECM’s venerable ranks in a traversal of motets by Guillaume de Machaut, one of many landmark recordings by the newly minted ensemble.


(Photo credit: Marco Borggreve)

Whereas other vocal groups might have bowed out with a flourish, the Hilliards have chosen a contemplative return to roots, drawing from a repertoire ingrained in their individual beings long before becoming a part of their collective one. Many of the composers whose work is represented herein are anonymous, yet their music, notes David James in his affectionate liner note, is anything but. Included among the sélections sans auteur is some of the Hilliards’ most incisive singing on disc, which illuminates the verily bookended pages of “Clangat tuba” in purest gold and imbues “Lullay, I saw” with baby’s-breath. Also remarkable are the more intimate combinations, especially those pairing James with one or both of the tenors. The Codex Speciálník has long been one of my most beloved Hilliard albums, in large part because of its occasional duets, and Transeamus may just share that position for its own. “There is no rose,” one of the program’s three carols, is one such instance of skeletal beauty.

John Plummer (1410-1483) is one of four known composers represented. His “Anna mater” is an astonishing creation. Through watery sustains, over which the higher voices bend like willow branches, it reveals a consummate approach between image and reflection. The “Stella Caeli” by Walter Lambe (1450/51-a.1499) threads one of the program’s most angelic looms with a continually changing color scheme. “Ave Maria, Mater Dei” by William Cornysh (c.1468-1523) is as lovely as it is luminescent, and is all the more moving for Gordon Jones’s spinal tap. Lastly, Sheryngham’s “Ah, gentle Jesu” secures the Hilliard Ensemble legacy with a piece of such descriptive power that it turns the immaterial into a tangible piece of faithful proportion, if not also proportional faith. Like the windows of Propstei St. Gerold, the Austrian monastery where so much of their brilliance was captured for posterity, these unrivaled singers allow light to shine both ways.

This album’s title may be Latin for “we travel on,” but we the listeners can be sure that just as much of the Hilliards will be left behind in our hearts as they will carry forward in their own.

(To hear samples of Transeamus, click here.)

Jan Garbarek/The Hilliard Ensemble: Officium Novum (ECM New Series 2125)

Officium Novum

Officium Novum

Jan Garbarek soprano and tenor saxophones
The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded June 2009 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

A little farther
we will see the almond trees blossoming
the marble gleaming in the sun
the sea breaking into waves 

a little farther,
let us rise a little higher.
–Giorgos Seferis

Sometimes music bypasses all other faculties and journeys straight into our souls. It eschews intellectual games, removes the safety net from beneath critical acrobats, and seeks no justification for its effects. To say that Officium Novum is just such music would be as gross an understatement as is likely to drop from my brain. The achievements of the Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist Jan Garbarek on this album’s predecessors, Officium and Mnemosyne, hardly need emphasis. They were nothing short of astonishing, blending presumably incongruous signatures in a sound of unparalleled parallels. Yet this third effort from the project stands out for its distinct separation of voices as it leads our ears and hearts more toward Eastern Europe, and farther to Armenia.

Hilliards Garbarek

In the latter vein, the multifaceted folk and liturgical arrangements of Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935)—whose music has elsewhere fallen within ECM’s purview on Kim Kashkashian’s Hayren—form the album’s central nervous system, although nowhere more so than in “Ov zarmanali,” a baptismal hymn that with Garbarek’s solo introduction marks the aforementioned separation as a running theme from first blush. In the rasp of his reed breathes a memory of nature, so that the Hilliards’ entrance spins a fantasy that can never gain traction in the here and now, confined as it is to wandering the past like a prisoner in his cell. Nevertheless, sanctity reigns, as prophesied by the third-century Byzantine chant, “Svjete tihij” (Gladsome light), which sacrifices its luminescence as it is sliced by the barred window. Its vocal blood later warms the body of Arvo Pärt’s “Most Holy Mother of God,” written for the Hilliards in 2003, thereby closing a divine circuit with its concluding dissonances.

Separations abound in other Komitas pieces as Garbarek carries the full chanting weight of “Surb, Surb” and skirts fields of dew in “Hays hark nviranats ukhti,” surpassed only once by countertenor David James in the “Sirt im sasani” (Hymn for Maundy Thursday). Like two wings joined to the same body, they are nominally separate but linked by thought, instinct, and action. Such notes of independence are implied also by the album’s cover photograph, which shows a lone outlier, back turned yet bridged to his fellows by light on the water. Even that reflection bears a horizontal rift of shadow: a cleft of nascent wave eating its way toward shore.

The lifeblood of Officium Novum courses through “Litany,” a three-chambered heart of Russian, Romanian, and anonymous sources. At its center is “Otche nash,” drawn from the Lipovan Old Believers tradition and sung alone by baritone Gordon Jones before Garbarek threads the backdrop of an anonymous “Dostoino est” in ways eerily similar to the first collaboration in 1993. Another anonymous relic, this of 16th century Spain, braces the architecture of “Tres morillas m’enamoran.” Heard on many a Renaissance record, the piece finds new life in the current rendering, seeming to reach for us from the future rather than out of the past. This is where the separations begin to soften, as Garbarek harmonizes more docilely at first before darting through and around the voices with bird-like grace. Breaths between verses lend a reflective, antiphonal quality, as they do also in Pérotin’s “Alleluia. Nativitas,” newly rendered since its appearance on Mnemosyne. It is joyous, almost incongruously so, among these monochromatic brethren, but gives a name to the light from which it fashions flesh for bone.

Two pieces by Jan Garbarek complete the musical share of the album. “Allting finns” (Everything there is) sets “Den döde” (The dead one), a poem by Swedish writer Pär Lagerkvist (1891-1974), into beautiful interpretive metalwork, filigreed by the composer’s alchemy of paramusical elements, while “We are the stars” (based on a Native American poem of the Passamaquoddy people) is here transformed from its last appearance on RITES into a fully embodied soul, whose words and bare coherences constitute a fabric unto itself. Garbarek’s playing is so respectful that it walks on water and leads us to Bruno Ganz’s reading of “Nur ein Weniges noch” by Giorgos Seferis (1900-1971), which ends the program. Both narrator and poet are recurring touch-points in the ECM corpus. By their virtue, we are left with a vastly intersectional view of the (im)material world and a single takeaway message that resounds, May you be blessed to be found.

(To hear samples of Officium Novum, click here.)

Terje Rypdal: Melodic Warrior (ECM 2006)

2006 X

Terje Rypdal
Melodic Warrior

Terje Rypdal guitar
The Hilliard Ensemble
Bruckner Orchester Linz
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Sebastian Perloswski conductor
Melodic Warrior recorded December 2003 at Brucknerhaus, Linz (ORF)
Recording engineer: Alice Ertlbauer-Camerer
Engineer: Alois Hummer
And The Sky Was Coloured… recorded November 2009 at Jazztopad Festival, Wrocław
Recording engineer: Maurycy Kin
Mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo by Jan Erik Kongshaug, Manfred Eicher and Terje Rypdal
Album produced by Manfred Eicher

…from the house made of mirage…
…the rainbow rose up with me…
…the rainbow returned with me…
…to the entrance of my house…
…from the house made of mirage…
–excerpted from a Navajo Night Chant

How does one review an album for which one has also written liner notes? This is the challenge I set before myself in the instance of Terje Rypdal’s astonishing Melodic Warrior. Pairing the gargantuan title piece with a younger sibling, it reveals yet another facet of the Norwegian guitarist’s compositional profile, one that has given us such wondrous reflective surfaces as Undisonus and his Lux Aeterna. Where those two works examined sonic temperatures across relatively expansive climates, here the lens cracks in an implosion of voices.

Of those voices we get four prominent stewards in the Hilliard Ensemble, who also commissioned Melodic Warrior from the very ether. Their singing burgeons in a selection of Native American poetry chosen by Rypdal, along with a sprinkle of original words. To the touch-and-go listener it may seem an outlying choice for the Hilliards, unless of course one considers their likeminded reworking of Quechua and Passamaquoddy sources with saxophonist Jan Garbarek on, respectively, Mnemosyne and Officium Novum—in which case the fit could hardly be more intuitive. These are poetries rooted in that which roots us, pouring mercury into the primacy of oral over written expression: the lived knowledge that eternal regeneration is impossible without the fleeting rain.

The instrumental makeup alone chains this magnum opus to an immovable classical altar, surrounding the Hilliards with a full orchestra under the ever-erudite guidance of Dennis Russell Davies. It further bears the scars of Rypdal’s many-hued pools of influence, for his electric guitar bleeds through its movements like fire through lit steel wool, cupping a prog-rock relic or two in its satchel. In light of this, Melodic Warrior would seem to bring together many of his earlier threads into unified fruition—from his supergroup The Dream and on through the defining ECM years (Odyssey, Chasers, and especially Skywards) to the large-scale compositions mentioned above. The end effect is a snake coiled and poised to strike. Yet rather than deploy its secrets as weaponry (the melodic warrior sustains injury in place of others), it holds venom in mind and makes it palatable to the tongue and to the ear. Rypdal’s baying leads are unmistakable in this regard, stringing us as they do along a necklace of vocal cells, each writ large within the itinerant body. That we can at last experience the journey of that body on disc (prior to release, it had been maturing in ECM’s vaults for nearly a decade) is a gift for the soul.

Rypdal’s Opus 79 finds company in his Opus 97, And The Sky Was Coloured With Waterfalls And Angels. Whether coincidental or not, the numerical reversal suggests a kinship. And indeed, despite its wordless topography, the second piece would seem to drink from the same ocean, albeit on a different coast. Fronting now another orchestra and without the company of (human) voices, Rypdal paints bruises of a different kind: these the bursting flowers of a fireworks display. Although not overtly programmatic, those eruptions do materialize in periodic squints, carrying us out on a breath of awe.

It was an honor and a dream come true to contribute liner notes to this release. In solidarity with listeners (and because digital downloads deprive us of the pleasure of holding a booklet), I offer said notes in full below, with ECM’s kind permission.

… . …

Contrapunctus naturalis: Rypdal’s Warriors and Angels

The Chippewa tell a form of picture-story in which silence takes the form of two lines, close but never touching. As the asymptote of all existence, they do more than represent. They enshrine. Surrounding them is a need for self-questioning, for acknowledging the power of the beating drum.

River, nature, vision: these are the tools of the warrior whose flesh stands firm against the tide. Like the stag hanging from a tree—last touched by chipped stone and hunter’s eye, now drained by gravity and sun’s transit—it has an illusory stillness. Somewhere, in another time, the warrior’s legs still run. Terje Rypdal’s warrior is consequently melodic. Protagonist of his magnum opus, he activates a landscape by contact of lyric and pen. Its composer is a river; the voices of the Hilliard Ensemble its fauna; the writhing Bruckner Orchestra Linz, under the baton of Dennis Russell Davies, its flora. Davies adds depth through an abiding passion for living works. He gives voice to the margins, here doubly so, guiding Rypdal’s assembly through a 45-minute epic drawn from Chippewa, Navajo, Pima, and Papago sources. The words came to Rypdal by way of stage director and musician Carl Jørgen Kiønig, who lent him a book of Native American poetry. “Its closeness to nature mirrored my own,” he says, and thus the seeds were planted. Since its 2003 Austrian premiere, this Hilliard commission has taken on a soul that consolidates Rypdal’s many paths.

From his early ECM leader dates onward, including the self-titled 1971 debut and 1974’s Whenever I Seem To Be Far Away, Rypdal has had a hand in multiple idioms. He grew up in a classical home (his father was also a composer) and trained formatively in that sphere before taking to the guitar in his teens. If we can paint anything with these biographical colors, it is not the portrait of a fusion artist, but rather one who walks along dissolving borders. Whether in the chamber music aesthetics of Q.E.D. or the wayfaring 5th Symphony, in the droning lyricism of Undisonus or the flowing textures of Lux Aeterna, through it all persists a consistency of vision.

And what of Melodic Warrior? “The title came to me almost as a vision,” Rypdal recalls. “It felt as if I had planned something like this all my life.” Given the strength of this conviction, one might expect a ruder “Awakening” than what transpires in the eponymous prologue. The first of nine movements, it opens its eyes in high-pitched stasis, an abyss where the fray of human awareness hums above the earth’s surface. The ensuing plunge is cinematic to the core, traveling from cosmos to land, from breath to heart. In it we find the glitter of coastal waters, a veritable Bering land bridge rooted in sea floor and spreading its fingers toward wounded sky. To tread here is to embrace daylight, to feast on it, as the crow takes to carrion.

Storm, leaf, soil: the constellations Rypdal’s electric guitar lives by, echoes from a mythic past, garments donned by our four unmistakable voices when twilight falls around them. Their welcome blessing reveals an organic body, splitting and fusing like water’s flow. As one, they fly. In isolation, they soar. During solos their spirits thread disparate needles, sometimes flirting with call and response, but always with unity in sight. A storm is nothing without its droplets.

Rypdal remains the omniscient lurker, resurfacing across the suspenseful pages of “The Secret File” with script aflame. He envisions this dramatic intermezzo—having used it before in a hard-rock context—as a nod to Western film soundtracks, thereby bearing relevance on the contradictions of the Native American theme. Not until “Song Of Thunder” does he ride lightning into the roiling ash. He weaves stealthily, finding in the curve of a whale’s back, in the sweep of a honeybee’s pollen comb, the natural counterpoint that haunts his oeuvre at large.

The strings of Linz mark the face of this music with laugh lines. Profound shifts in light reveal rivulets and isles of possibility. In “Magician Song” countertenor David James evokes a leaf on that water, the tremble of the branch before its descent, the seed from which that tree burgeoned. Ancestors become stories, backgrounds become foregrounds, as they would in dreams, and close the circle by way of opening another in the light of a morning star.

The flair of Melodic Warrior brings to mind another ECM-represented composer, Erkki-Sven Tüür, whose background in progressive rock buoys a mind meld of fortitude and color. And if we can draw further lines of contact to the work of such 20th-century stalwarts as Górecki, Ligeti, Penderecki, and even a hint of Glass, it is only because Rypdal has mixed and baked his clay from the mineral-rich soil of deep listening.

All of this comprises a challenge to purveyors of modern music who rest on atmospheric crutches in lieu of compelling linear themes. Rypdal points to early conversations in this regard with label mate Ketil Bjørnstad: “We used to talk about how melody in contemporary music was looked down upon. I knew right from the start of my composing that I had to bring back melody…and beauty in general.” His forte embodies the uphill battle of this realization, beholds the world as new parents behold themselves, at once without and within. The polarity makes sense, for what is the guitar if not a bringer of visceral melody? It is a fortuitous compositional tool in the hands of one who wields it properly.

Sky, journey, reflection: the shaman’s initiations. As technician of the sacred, the shaman dismantles mortal designs. He abstains from taste of dust for that of haze. He casts bones through skin, passes mind through matter, and returns with timely prophecy. He visualizes decay, the withering of boundaries. He casts one eye down and the other up. Thus undone, the earth overflows.

And The Sky Was Coloured With Waterfalls And Angels is the receptacle of that excess. More than a landscape, it is another link in the chain of being. The live recording presented here opens a curtain on Wrocław, Poland, where the 2009 Jazztopad Festival (artistic director: Piotr Turkiewicz) is about to set forth on this purely instrumental journey. It is under these auspices that, with Sebastian Perłowski leading the Wrocław Philharmonic and Rypdal poised before six foreshortening strings, the music bubbles with the freshness of its premiere.

The piece was inspired by the 2008 International Fireworks Festival in Cannes and assumes a denser structure than its sibling. It brings to evidence the din of human commerce, technology, and construction, even as it links those rosettes high beyond mundane concern. The violin scratches an itch it cannot quell, unfurls banners of melancholia between explosions. Even a surge of harp brings little hope or heavenliness. It is caked with time, unshaken. Somehow all of this finds peace, such that the sky becomes the cell of another body, and that body the cell of another.

Mirror, vessel, silence: the totems of a composer seeking nectar. Once found, it drips from waterskin, emphasizes imperfections. This music holds a mirror to land, turning every arch into a ring. The counterpoint is more than natural. It is the all-encompassing sight of things created and destroyed. Every instrument sheds a skin.

The horns in particular take on a quasi-Wagnerian role throughout the program, signaling themes and atmospheres as they become intertwined with locations and avatars. At one moment the song of bestial life, swaying the next in bowed waters, they cast crimson lines of intention into a darkening sea. This is the trick of Rypdal’s notecraft: he digs into continental influences with an archaeologist’s eye, persevering where many have quit until that single common vessel is revealed, petrified yet singing.

Tyran Grillo

Silence

Melodic Warrior liner notes

It is my honor to announce that Terje Rypdal’s Melodic Warrior, a masterpiece commissioned by the Hilliard Ensemble and featuring Rypdal on electric guitar fronting two separate orchestras, will include liner notes by yours truly. You can pre-order your copy from Amazon here, or from your vendor of choice. In the meantime, I encourage you to check out a sample. Now the question is: How am I going to write a review for this one?

2006 X

Gesualdo: Quinto Libro di Madrigali (ECM New Series 2175)

Gesualdo Madrigali

Carlo Gesualdo
Quinto Libro di Madrigali

The Hilliard Ensemble
Monika Mauch soprano
David James countertenor
David Gould countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 2009 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

If my grief pains you,
only you, my soul,
can turn it all to joy.

On first hearing madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), English writer Aldous Huxley proclaimed, “These voices—they’re a kind of bridge back to the human world.” In the mouths of the Hilliard Ensemble they certainly are. Baritone Gordon Jones cites the Prince of Venosa as a touchstone of the ensemble’s performing repertoire. And so, it is with practiced appreciation that they return to it as they take on his Fifth Book of Madrigals of 1611 in its entirety. Gesualdo finished his Sixth and final Book (he would leave fragments of an unfinished Seventh) in the same year, penning his first in 1594. Of the Fifth, Jones says, “The whole collection constitutes a gallery of dramatically lit portraits of human emotions with a heavy emphasis on the extremes of joy and despair.” On this note, the addition of soprano Monika Mauch and countertenor David Gould speaks to the range and color required of those extremes, and in this regard the ensemble emotes splendidly.

One can hardly discuss this music without mentioning its bold, mannerist dissonances. Written as it was by a man who had his wife and her lover murdered when he caught them in flagrante delicto and who subsequently receded into his own psycho-sonic cage, this can be no surprise. Even by today’s standards it rattles us. Yet to characterize Gesualdo’s output by so reductive a summation (dissonance, for example, was part and parcel of the madrigal idiom) would be to ignore the textually sensitive traditions of harmonic expansion upon which he built it. Despite being professedly “ahead of his time,” he was no enigma to his aristocratic contemporaries, being a particular favorite of Queen Christina of Sweden. For every gritty texture he loosed, a smoother one was in attendance, and we do well to remember the equal weight in both pans of the scale.

We have the Hilliard/ECM partnership to thank for already having done the composer justice with a sublime and direct rendition of his Tenebrae Responsories for the Christian Holy Week. Here that same trueness to the melodic line remains, and is so magnified by the bareness of its voices, by which the tortuousness we’ve come to expect lives by a more fluid name. If it lives anywhere, it is in the strange tenderness of Gioite voi col canto, which opens the collection with an autobiographical tinge:

Rejoice in song,
while I weep and sigh,
while tears choke my breath.
Alas, wretched heart of mine,
born for grief alone;
weep, but weep so much
that my mistress may be vanquished
by your tears, and then revert to seeing
my grief and pains in her.

The shifting tectonics of tenor lines and dulcet edge of Mauch’s gilding in the words’ weeping evocation is testament both to Gesualdo’s knack for comingling and to the sensitivity of the singers assembled at Propstei St. Gerold, where these works were so lovingly recorded. The charged weight of Itene, o miei sospiri rekindles these considerations, mixing “bitter weeping” with “loving song” in particularly adroit handling from the Hilliards. O dolorosa gioia falls into the same category of “painful joy,” a core theme of Book Five that finds further traction in Se vi duol il mio duolo. In both of these, the pathos of the text comes through tactfully. Death is another trope, as inescapable in the music as it is in us. From the heartfelt appeal of Occhi del mio cor vita (“Eyes, life of my heart”) and the lovesick resignation of Languisce al fin (“He who parts from his life languishes at last”) to the lachrymose accents of O tenebroso giorno (“O darkest day”), the music is practically dripping with it. Yet not all is so morose in this landscape, for there are also the flora of Felicissimo sonno, a heartfelt appeal to dreams as living threads to a love that cannot flourish in waking, and the intoxications of Correte, amanti, a prova (“Vie, lovers, in speed”) to soothe our weary countenances, to say nothing of the optimism that bids us a fond farewell in T’amo, mia vita (“I love you, my life”).

A small handful of these 21 madrigals stands out. The snaking turns of Mercè grido piangendo (“Have pity on me! I cry weeping”) showcase the coolness of the Hilliard’s peerless blend to the utmost, while the prototypically Gesualdan Tu m’uccidi, o crudele (“You are killing me, o cruel woman”) pulls out all the stops in its affective toolkit, achieving moments of sublime light. Finally, Se tu fuggi, io non resto, with its fluttering vowels and tight syncopations breathes with expert realization, even as its narrative voice bids us leave on the wings of cruelty.

Due to the subject matter and sheer variety of invention, and despite the pitch-perfect performances, this is no mere soundtrack for an idle afternoon. It asks us to steep in its brew until we begin to take on a bit of its flavor. Those who find beauty in the Tenebrae may encounter discomfort in these secular woes. But if this discomfort has anything to teach us, it is that the act of living depends on that very thing.

The Hilliard Ensemble: Audivi Vocem (ECM New Series 1936)

 

The Hilliard Ensemble
Audivi Vocem

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Robert Macdonald bass
Recorded March 2005 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Audivi Vocem highlights the work of three English composers—Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585), Christopher Tye (c. 1505-1572), and John Sheppard (c. 1515-1558)—during a period of great liturgical change in the wake of King Henry VIII. Represented here are key works in the latter days of Henry’s reign, what David Skinner calls a “musicologically grey period.” We cannot, however, help but see bursts of colors in the shadows of Tallis’s In ieiunio et fletu, which welcomes a program of uniquely affirming polyphony, for behind the repenting veneer we see ourselves wrapped in the brokenness of social order. Such would seem to be the touches brought to floral life by David James’s unparalleled countertenor strains, casting light as they do onto the relief of the Salvator mundi and smudging us over into the denser knots of Tye’s Omnes gentes plaudite.

Tye, in fact, is the glue that binds this set through his Missa Sine Nomine, itself refracted into a series of signposts on the way toward silence. His crunchy dissonances and thick harmonies capture the spirit of an age in decline (Gloria), even as they cast their arms toward rapture (Sanctus). These weighted clouds break for the music of Sheppard, whose light shifts our focus into the album’s tenderest moments. The haunting tenor lines in his Beati omnes give us an especially glorified account of time, while the Laudate pueri Dominum falls like water along stone.

This recording is more “present” than the Hilliard Ensemble’s usual and allows for a closer view of the harmonies woven throughout, giving guest bass Robert Macdonald plenty of room to lay his ground. A lovely, if saddened, selection of music, but nonetheless important for lamenting an era without hope.

Nicolas Gombert: Missa Media Vita In Morte Sumus – The Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series 1884)

 

Nicolas Gombert
Missa Media Vita In Morte Sumus

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Andreas Hirtreiter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Robert Macdonald bass
Recorded May 2002 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

A rightful successor to Josquin Desprez, with whom he studied, Nicolas Gombert had been long neglected at the time of this recording. The mass represented here, split as it is among a choice selection of motets, is exemplary of his gift for rewriting. His vocal lines are characterized by their restlessness, both in terms of composition (the virtual lack of rests in the score) and mood (in its constant search for resolution).

How do Hilliards bring their own sensibility to music already so fine? By doing what they always do so well: allowing their entire beings to resonate with every note they sing. Augmenting their usual quartet, the Hilliards welcome bass Robert Macdonald and tenor Andreas Hirtreiter (making a trio of tenors for three of the motets herein) for this long-overdue recording. Macdonald’s presence is especially felt in the six-part motet, Media vita in morte sumus, that opens the program. Like much of what follows on this disc, the music is dark and bottom-heavy. This doesn’t mean, however, that moments of light are nowhere to be found, for in the escalations of tense polyphony that abound there is the illumination of obscurity. Like a stained glass window, one comes to know it through its variations in opacity and translucence, and then only through a glow whose source remains as intangible as the reverence that gave it life.

Gombert takes the Media vita in morte sumus as source for his five-part Missa Media Vita. Scattered among a selection of motets, the voices of the Missa tumble into one another in a music resigned to its own finitude. Harmonies tend toward the dissonant and tight, so that moments of consonance shine with an airy quality that seems to bypass the mind completely and head straight to the prayerful heart. There is gravity in this music, both in its sense of seriousness and in terms of force. One need listen no further than the Kyrie, which through its introductory tenor line shifts the angle of light to a gallery of rolling landscapes. Between the subtler interactions of the Sanctus and the continued magic of the tenor lines in the Agnus Dei, one cannot help but hear in their amen(d)s a visceral resolution.

Throughout the remaining motets, the brilliance of David James steals the heart, especially in O crux, splenidor cunctis. His duetted lines with tenors in the Salve Regina seem also to fly, scanning pasture for supplication. Unexpected changes await in Anima Mea, which moves with the timidity of a newly baptized child, while the closing Musae lovis, a tribute to Josquin, surrounds us in folds of ever-changing breath.

Gombert’s is music one can easily get lost in. In doing so, the listener learns to shut out the individual voice in favor of the grander tabernacle it embodies. His motives work in ropes more than threads. Like members of a shepherd’s flock, herded by divine command, they may not understand the constitution of the voice that guides them, but through the sound alone they know to press on with their brothers and sisters into the setting sun.

J. S. Bach: Motetten – The Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series 1875)

Johann Sebastian Bach
Motetten

The Hilliard Ensemble
Joanne Lunn soprano
Rebecca Outram soprano
David James countertenor
David Gould countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor, organ
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Robert Macdonald bass
Recorded November 2003, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It was during a concert given by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in the fall of 1995 that a Bach motet’s masterful weaves of light and sound first nourished these ears. With infinitely branching listening paths before me, however, I never explored the motets further—that is, until the ECM connection came full circle with this wondrous recording from the Hilliard Ensemble. Or should I say, the Hilliard Ensemble in duplicate, for here the quartet is joined by sopranos Joanne Lunn and Rebecca Outram, countertenor David Gould, and bass Robert Macdonald for a special session in the familiar acoustics of Austria’s Propstei St. Gerold.

Very little is known about the circumstances surrounding the composition of these motets, but as Martin Geck’s liner notes remind us, their significance in Bach’s oeuvre is on par with The Well-Tempered Clavier, equally monumental as examples of counterpoint and absolute harmony. They are, one might say, extra-musical insofar as they express themselves far beyond the words at their core, beyond the note values ascribed to those words, and beyond the constraints that pigeonhole them into meters and divisions. Rather, they lose themselves blissfully in the finer details of their flowering.

From the first threads of Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied one can feel the utter control these singers possess. Listening to them is like feeling the music being born from Bach’s mind, fresh and free from the pitfalls of excessive scrutiny. Lunn and Outram stand out especially, ringing out over the others like carillon overtones in a music overcome by a melismatic spirituality (listen also for their striking high that ends this opening motet). The shimmering space therein gives us some of the more intimate moments on the disc, nesting in mind and body with all the gentility of an autumn breeze. These motets all end on resolved chords, offering a sign of hope and tranquility in the wake of their roiling seas. On that note one can hardly praise this recording without highlighting the crisp diction throughout. This attention to linguistic color is perhaps what most separates it from those rendered in larger forces. Moments like the “Gute Nacht, O Wesen” portion of Jesu, Meine Freude are as tactile as our own bodies. Others of sheer transcendence abound, as in the final chorale of Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir and the Alleluia of Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden. Yet it is in the last, Ich lasse Dich nicht, du sengnest mich denn (often elided from Bach motet recordings, due to its contested authorship), that we find ourselves bathed in deepest calm, for here is the breath turned sacred, that it might begin a life of its own.

The Hilliard Ensemble: Guillaume de Machaut – Motets (ECM New Series 1823)

Guillaume de Machaut
Motets

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James counter-tenor
David Gould counter-ternor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 2001 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As one who spent a good part of his formative Renaissance listening digesting the music of Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377) via non-Hilliard Ensemble recordings (most notably Ensemble P.A.N.’s exemplary Remède de fortune on New Albion), I have to admit to not taking much of a shine to these renditions at first. Yet after sitting with, and returning to, this recording a number of times over the years, I’ve been able to move beyond my preconceived notions and to appreciate the stunning light they shed. I venture to say that others may have the same reaction, but the rewards for immersing oneself in this ECM treatment are revelatory. The Hilliards have never been ones to take any project lightly, nor the choices within it, and the emotive care with which they sand and shape Machaut’s virtuosic settings is something to behold with wholehearted attention.

Like Gesualdo some two centuries later, Machaut was not without his preoccupations with mortality, love (both sacred and secular), and human beings’ penchant for suffering. It is perhaps for this reason that the Hilliards present their program in chronological order, as if to show us how Machaut grew behind and through its trajectory. And indeed we can almost hear that single comet’s tail drawn quietly from a tangle of cosmic lines. To be sure, these performances maintain the composer’s bold dissonances and challenging harmonies as they cascade over one another in waves of overwhelming polyphony (this, also, I think contributes to their hold on a listener), but in the Hilliards’ mouths their edges become rounded and fair, an effect only heightened by the resonance of Propstei St. Gerold, where the session was recorded.

The music is often anchored by dominant lines (e.g., Puis que la douce rousée) even as it spirals through a galaxy of atmospheres. Like a four-dimensional object it is impossible to fathom through the eyes, yet when we hear it through the shadows of the recorded medium it unscrambles our inner vocabulary like a Rubik’s cube until every side is uniform. Thus the movable nature of Machaut is so well suited to the Hilliards, for a likeminded meticulousness of vocal color and rhythmic staggering (O livoris feritas) truly distinguishes these singers from the rest. They also manage to enhance the sometimes-whimsical edge of the music’s piteous core, as in Helas! où sera pris confors. David James glows in the intimacies of Eins que ma dame d’onnour, Faus Samblant m’a deceü, as do the falsetto tenor lines in Fins cuers dous. Ultimately, however, one feels arbitrary in singling out certain moments over others, for Machaut’s knots are too well balanced to begin picking at individual threads.

I feel at pains to articulate what this music feels like, and equally so in trying extract some interpretive statement to which others, whether they’ve heard it or not, may relate. Like so much of what we encounter in our listening lives, these sounds come and go, lost even as they are experienced. That being said, I cannot help but believe that they leave discernible traces in the body, in the very synapses of the brain. If this recording has taught me anything about this art of reviewing in which I so humbly engage, it’s that immediate effect is not the criterion by which music should necessarily be judged. (In a world so bound by linear time, what currency does immediacy carry anymore?) Rather, I have increasingly tried to look at the specks of permanent change that Machaut, here and elsewhere, has lodged in me. Looking back on the experiences that led me to him in the first place, I know that fortune has indeed whispered into my ears with his texts and melodies from so many centuries ago.

If I may interrupt this stream of thought with a technical one, this was the first recording I ever heard with tenor Steven Harrold, who signed on with the Hilliard Ensemble in 1998. And while the colors of John Potter are certainly missed, Harrold delivers a fresh and slightly brighter tone (at the risk of undoing my earlier assertion, may I point your attention to his gorgeousness in the Veni creator spiritus). His presence is duly welcome in the context of Machaut’s motets, and along with countertenor David Gould enhances every motif he touches. If each motet is a series of numbers, then the Hilliards have provided us with legible solutions. Like a proof, each is filled with potential diversions and dead ends, but through this singular recording we are given a full map that we do well to follow with our eyes closed and our ears walking, open-armed.