Bach/Webern: Ricercar (ECM New Series 1774)

 

Johann Sebastian Bach
Anton Webern
Ricercar

The Hilliard Ensemble
Monika Mauch
soprano
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Münchener Kammerorchester
Christoph Poppen
Recorded January 2001, Himmelfahrtskirche, Sendling, München
Engineer: Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With Ricercar Christoph Poppen continues where he left off on Morimur. While the goal of the latter project was to reveal what was hidden, here it is to direct our ears to what is already there. To achieve this Poppen bridges the J. S. Bach divide now to Anton Webern, highlighting an early Bach cantata—“Christ lag in Todesbanden” (Christ lay in the bonds of death)—as a genetic link to Webern’s op. 5 and the String Quartet of 1905, and ultimately to Webern’s own rendering of the six-part ricercar from Das musikalische Opfer (The Musical Offering). Herbert Glossner, in his liner notes, analogizes the relationship between the cantata and the ricercar in architectural terms, with the former standing at the center and the latter providing the cornerstones. The structural comparisons are far from arbitrary. They provide key insight into the potential for both composers to interlock in fresh and enlivening (more on this below) ways.

The bookending ricercar does, in fact, support the program like the columns of some aged temple, letting the language therein build from the afterlife of a single oboe line. This weave seems to pull the orchestra from a profound slumber, also drawing from within it deeper threads that unfold rather than obscure their source. This is no mere interpretation, but a bodily dip into Baroque waters. The same can be said of Poppen’s project on the whole: Ricercar is neither trying to modernize Bach nor even to accentuate the timelessness of his music, but rather taking an informed look into the prism of its inception. Paired with the conductor’s variegated arrangement of the 1905 quartet, it pours like the sun through an open curtain. On this side of the spectrum the music has a similarly fugal structure and sits comfortably in its shell, yet also bleeds into the cup of Bach’s fourth cantata. The soaring organ and heavy foliage of strings and voices in the opening movement accentuate the kaleidoscopic effects of all that have fed into it thus far. The assembled forces accelerate into a beautifully syncopated passage that almost rings of Steve Reich’s Tehillim in the allelujas. The cantata’s only duet, here between soprano Monika Mauch and countertenor David James, is a crystal of fine diction (especially in the words, “Das macht…”), as are the respective tenor and baritone solos from Rogers Covey-Crump and Gordon Jones. The performances are carefully striated and blossom in the glory of their full inclusion (whereas in Morimur only selections were decidedly offered out of their immediate contexts).

All of this gives us a profound feel for the concept and for the awakening stirrings of Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, performed here in the composer’s own expanded version. Not unlike the preceding cantata, it awakens in plush contours into a duet of sorts before regaling us with tutti and solo passages in turn. This constant negotiation between speaker and spoken heightens the music’s physicality and thus its mortal vitality, so that in its throes we think not of death but rather of the life-giving soil in a landscape now heavily traveled. For while it is tempting, of course, to read these works as if they were written on the brittle paper of death, one cannot help but feel the affirmation of survival thrumming through their veins. Each is a universe in fragments waiting to be painted, and the exigencies of our fragile existence its subjects.

The Hilliard Ensemble: Lassus (ECM New Series 1658)

 

The Hilliard Ensemble
Lassus

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 1993, Boxgrove Priory, Chichester
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Of the more than 2000 works written by the Franco-Flemsih composer Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594), this benchmark recording by the Hilliard Ensemble encompasses two of his most significant. The plainchant that opens our hearts to the Missa Pro Defunctis provides a level foundation from which to rise slowly into vocal awareness. Like all great polyphonists, Lassus treats the word as flesh, stretching it over the skeleton of a life animated by divine breath. Yet within the godly body beats a heart of silence, and within that silence thrives the core faith through which this music is “visibly” recirculated. It proceeds from, and is written in honor of, the same font. Throughout every moment of the Mass’s conception, we are draped in a veil of obscurity, so that by the Agnus Dei we have shielded ourselves enough to handle a glimpse at the face of our Creator. The closing plainchant not only completes the circle, but spins it like a coin that never stops.

The Prophetiae Sibyllarum is Lassus’s ode to chromaticism, and introduces a unique set of textual and tonal colors that he would never visit again. Unexpected harmonic shifts draw straight lines amid a field of curves. At its densest moments, the Prophecies reach the profundity of Gesualdo, as in the inescapably gorgeous Sybilla Phrygia. These are decidedly secular pieces, constructed as they are around Pagan-influenced texts. Never content in staying in one territory for too long, they are constantly shifting between moods and colors, so that by the end one is left with a fractal of musical effect.

It seems that every new Hilliard Ensemble recording outdoes the last, and this is certainly no exception. Gordon Jones truly stands out here, as he brings a distinct airiness to his lines. The interplay between him and Rogers Covey-Crump in the Graduale of the Mass is astonishing, while David James shines through every turn of the Prophetiae. The music of Lassus would be a puzzle, were it not for the solutions etched upon its surface, as if it were glass and one need only turn it to catch the light the right way to see those inscriptions glowing in a litany of scars across the visage of time. Its meanings are the Alpha and Omega of creation, and duly so for the music created in their name.

The Hilliard Ensemble: In Paradisum – Music of Victoria and Palestrina (ECM New Series 1653)

 

The Hilliard Ensemble
In Paradisum: Music of Victoria and Palestrina

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James counter-tenor
John Potter tenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded September 1997 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In Paradisum is a trinity within a trinity. Shuffling the works of Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina(1525/26-1594) between plainsong selections from the Toule Graduale manuscript of 1610, the ever-attentive Hilliard Ensemble offer us one of their finest recordings yet. Ivan Moody duly reminds us in his accompanying essay that the prolific Palestrina and the younger, more reclusive Victoria lived primarily by and of the Spirit. As composers, they have grown into stars of a Renaissance music niche market, but in the Hilliards’ throats they are votive candles whose flames remain alive in our hearts as we listen, as evidenced by the liturgical surroundings in which we encounter their music here. Embracing every note with humility and grace, these performances chart a significant shift from monophony to polyphony.

Victoria’s Officium Defunctorum, his last published work, was written in memory of Dowager Empress Maria, for whom he served as personal chaplain until her death in 1603. Whatever thorns of sadness are to be found in this music are filed to rounded points by the fluid voices of this recording. The delicate changes of register in the opening “Taedet animam meam” set a plaintive model for all that follows. The effect of the “Libera me Domine” farther in, with its broad strokes and tender embraces, seems to percolate into the entire program. Those who appreciate the subtle complexities of both plainchant and polyphony will appreciate their being juxtaposed in the “Peccantem me quotidie,” which alternates between the two in a seamless responsory. We are humbled by another swath of responsorial humility in a second, 13-minute “Libera me Domine,” this time by Palestrina, who is further represented by a selection of motets, including the flowering Domine quando veneris (which almost comes as a soft shock to the senses in the company of Victoria’s denser invocations) and the resplendent Heu mihi Domine. Palestrina works with unsteady lines and favors weaving the lower voices into a deeper foundation, as in his Ad Dominum cum tribularer clamavi.

The chant that fleshes out the rest of the album is some of the most affecting one is likely to find on disc, and allows us an even more visceral understanding of our own mortality. And while all of this music deals with the darker sides of mortality (the Victoria and Palestrina being drawn from texts for the Office of the Dead, and the chants comprising an anonymous Requiem Mass), it steps outside of time, reminding us that death is something we all share, and that in being so it is holy.

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.

Schnittke/Raskatov: Symphony No. 9/Nunc dimittis (ECM New Series 2025)

 

Alfred Schnittke
Alexander Raskatov
Symphony No. 9/Nunc dimittis

Dresdner Philharmonie
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Elena Vassilieva mezzo-soprano
The Hilliard Ensemble
Recorded January 2008, Lukaskirche, Dresden
Engineers: Markus Heiland and Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“It seems that the ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away…. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.”
–Arnold Schoenberg

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) is another in a long line of composers who have fallen to the so-called “curse of the ninth.” And while in Schnittke’s case the curse doesn’t quite hold water (it is, technically, his Tenth when one takes his Symphony No. 0 into account), the circumstances of its completion are prime material for the lore that surrounds such configurations of creative output. Regardless of how much we believe in the numerical significance of Schnittke’s Ninth, it was the last work he ever committed to paper. That he mustered the ability to do so after suffering four strokes, which had left his right side paralyzed, makes the work’s existence all the more enigmatic. Said debilitation forced Schnittke to write with his non-dominant hand, making for a virtually unreadable score. Famed Schnittke conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky subsequently prepared, under apparently spurious authority, a “performing edition,” which Schnittke vehemently rejected upon hearing a tape of its performance. Following his death soon thereafter, the score was entrusted by widow Irina to one Nikolai Korndorf, a fellow composer who sadly died of a brain tumor before he was able to do anything with it. Irina then passed the work along to Alexander Raskatov, who felt so moved in his attempts to provide a more definitive manuscript that he added an elegiac fourth movement of sorts to Schnittke’s already monumental three in the form of the Nunc dimittis (“Lord, let thy servant now depart into thy promis’d rest”) that rounds out this landmark recording.

The visceral Andante that opens the Ninth—which, in Raskatov’s estimation, acts as a “voice from beyond”—is like a string of blocks sagging over time. Harmonies move from consonance and dissonance in fluid sweeps, their ambiguity neither inviting nor repelling us. If anything, they signal a maturity that accepts those experiences that embolden us through their difficulty as well as those that refashion us through their proverbial beauty. Schnittke preserves his special sensitivity for the orchestra, treating it at times as a solo instrument, as if each section were its own string, and at others as if those voices were so distinct that they existed only through the vast spaces that separate them. It is this constant balancing act that makes the Schnittke experience so alive with nuance, easily adapting to our changing temperaments. In such a world of sound there is no self yet stable enough to hold on to for a lifetime. There is only the constant negotiation of our own musicality and the indeterminacy that binds it. And so, when the timpani announces itself at last, it sounds less like a declamatory statement and more like the heartbeat of a feeble and weary body. The addition of a harpsichord in the Moderato as a sort of tangential continuo of times past is a perfect example of Schnittke’s asymptotic grace. It also gives the symphony a concerto-like pathos, ever offset by a cryptic aftertaste and recumbent winds. As a whole, the Ninth is dominated by scales, which take a most blatant turn at the tail end of the Moderato, during which a trumpet runs through a chromatic line (perhaps in acknowledgment of its pedagogical roots?) as a lead-in to the final Presto, where we hear this modal motif echoed in the strings, and again in the lone oboe that welcomes the harpsichord’s unassuming return. Such fundamental utterances are, I think, keys into the piece’s inner energies, and prepare us for the gentle letting down of its cessation.

Raskatov’s intriguing companion piece, written in memoriam, is scored for mezzo-soprano, men’s voices and orchestra. It opens with verses by Joseph Brodsky, a favorite poet of Schnittke’s, and imparts its remaining attentions to a text by hesychast Staretz Silouan (who ECM listeners will recognize as a name of interest on Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum). Raskatov delves deeper into Schnittke’s symphonic territory, trail-marking it with voices along the way. Brief outbursts from harpsichord and marimba, along with some Ligeti-inspired vocal articulations, lend a ceremonial cast to the glowing mood. Dense brass swellings recall Górecki’s Old Polish Music, while a watery gong and shadowy electric guitar work their way into an ending that is but a mirror image of its own intentions.

A professor once told me: “Only a fool would think the answer is the most important part of the question.” Such a statement suits the music at hand, if only because the death(s) it circumscribes are as inexpressible as my unworthy attempts to relate it to the silent reader. In this regard, the present recording may be a give and take for the Schnittke admirer. On the one hand, it lacks the conviction of, say, his often-hailed Eighth. On the other, listeners will delight in the familiar presence of his beloved harpsichord and mellifluous scoring. By far one of the most stunning ECM New Series entries, this album is a more than fitting testament to a glorious composer and an opportune introduction for another who, though not so well known, walks humbly in his shadow.

Giya Kancheli: Abii ne viderem (ECM New Series 1510)

 

Giya Kancheli
Abii ne viderem

Kim Kashkashian viola
Vasiko Tevdorashvili voice
Natalia Pschenitschnikova alto flute
The Hilliard Ensemble
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded April 1994
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

My first exposure to the music of Giya Kancheli, with which the composer once said, “I feel more as if I were filling a space that has been deserted,” was through Exil, which remains in my opinion the finest ECM New Series release to date. Much in contrast to the tearful beauty of that most significant chamber album, the orchestral arrangements on Abii ne viderem—drawn as they are from the same thematic sources—lend extroverted articulation to essentially “monastic” material. This music may speak the same language, but in a far more distant dialect. The Life without Christmas cycle, from which two pieces bookend the present recording, is central to the Kancheli oeuvre. Not only is it his wellspring, but it also comprises, it would seem, the overarching worldview under which he musically operates. It is the gloom of a life of displacement, the full embodiment of what Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich calls “measured gravity,” which may perhaps be likened to the heavy emptiness of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. As in said film, every gesture makes a footprint, a remnant of human presence left to sink into the submerged wasteland of a silent future.

Morning Prayers (1990) is immediately distinguished by an angelic boy soprano, whose taped voice is never fully grounded but which hovers throughout. The piano adds another haunting element, seeming to pull at the barbed ends of nostalgia even as it pushes the orchestra down a flight of descendent chords. Occasional violent moments startle us into self-awareness and only serve to underscore the power of the prayers that surround them. The most profoundly effective moment occurs when the piano echoes in a dance-like theme, the orchestral accompaniment slightly off center—a distant memory ravaged by time and circumstance.

The title of the album’s central piece, Abii ne viderem (1992/94), translates to “I turned away so as not to see.” The more one listens to it, the question becomes not what is being turned away from but what is being observed upon turning. Its paced staccato bursts are linked by a profound silence, escalating with every reiteration. This silence eventually opens into a full orchestral statement, italicized again by the piano’s audible pulse. We find ourselves caught in the middle of a larger web of sentiments, until we can no longer see ourselves for who we are but only for who we have been. Personally, I find this piece to be a touch overbearing, if only because the import of its ideas is easily crushed by the heft of its dynamic spread.

The presence of the Hilliard Ensemble rescues Evening Prayers (1991) from the didacticism of its predecessor. It is a more fully unified narrative, linked by a lingering alto flute. A gorgeous “ascension” passage marks a rare contrapuntal moment for Kancheli, while David James’s voice creates magic, ever so subtly offset by a skittering violin. Occasional bursts, some punctuated by snare drum, break the mood and ensure that our attention is held. Inevitably, the piece ends like a ship sailing into a foggy ocean, leaving behind only a blank map to show for our travels.

Don’t let any comparisons to Arvo Pärt lure you astray. Kancheli’s music, while transcendent, cannot be divorced from its rootedness in upheaval. And while this album may be filled with beautiful moments, I cannot help but feel that something gets elided in these grander arrangements. I say this with the gentlest of criticisms, and perhaps only because my first foray into this world was on such a small scale. The sound of Exil stays with me, and sometimes I just cannot hear it in any other context, and for those wishing to hear this composer for the first time I would recommend starting there. That being said, the scale of these pieces makes them no less evocative for all their historical understatements and sensitivity. And perhaps that is Kancheli’s underlying observation: that, in our current climate of convalescent ideologies, all we have to hold on to are those rare flashes of fire in which our communion with something greater has transcended the rising waters of sociopolitical corruption.

Jan Garbarek/The Hilliard Ensemble: Mnemosyne (ECM New Series 1700/01)

 

 

 

Mnemosyne

Jan Garbarek tenor or soprano saxophones
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded April 1998, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“And the strict lord Death bids them to dance.”
–Jof, The Seventh Seal

To anyone who ever wondered why the Officium project needed a successor, this album provides a formidable answer. Whereas in its first effort this fearless fivesome built a program around relatively structured material, hundreds of concert performances and subsequent additions to their repertoire led the Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist Jan Garbarek to the veritable medicine bag of expansive ideas that is Mnemosyne. Their deeper surrender to the art of improvisation makes for an even more self-aware effort this time around, and the resulting double album is nothing short of remarkable.

Spanning over three millennia, the uncannily cohesive program takes the project to unexpected heights. Its opening Quechua Song epitomizes the inner harmony of this inimitable partnership; a union that, not unlike the music it produces, is fleshed out through countless fragments drawn from worldly sources. While familiar territories abound—among them pieces by Tallis, Dufay, and Tormis—the addition of tenor and soprano saxophones renders them beautifully arcane. Even during those pieces in which the Hilliards sing alone, Garbarek’s presence is ever felt, hovering like a shadow in the corner of our vision. A particularly impassioned rendition of an Antoine Brumel Agnus Dei provides one of the strongest cases for this vocal/instrumental combination, as Garbarek expels an intensely visceral song that both scales the highest reaches and plumbs the shallowest coves of his surroundings. Though the album may have its weak moments (the medieval Novus novus, for example, is a little too compact to allow much room for a “fifth voice”), these are few and far between. In any case, the commitment that binds them never wavers, so that by the end of the first disc, which is capped by Hildegard von Bingen’s stunning O ignis spiritus, we realize this project has attained an entirely new level of melodic unity and ethereality. As the pièce de résistance of this collection, O ignis rises in a class of its own, made all the more unrepeatable by Rogers Covey-Crump’s inscriptions of untold mythologies. The haunting Hymn to the Sun by Mesomedes of Crete (2nd century) is another radiant success that writhes in captivating pangs of resolution. I must also commend Garbarek for his own two compositional entries: Strophe and Counter-Strophe, which makes attentive usage of the Hilliards’ variegated range, and Loiterando, with its likeminded choral astuteness and finely attuned brassy ornaments, both widen the scope of possibilities to be discovered.

In his monograph The Passion of Ingmar Bergman, Frank Gado argues that The Seventh Seal “is not radically about death at all; rather, it focuses on the terror of emptiness in life.” Similarly, the music of Mnemosyne preaches transcendence even as it gazes quietly upon the earth at its feet. That the album artwork is plastered with images from the selfsame film is no mere coincidence. The synthesis of sound and silence is like that of life and death: the two can never be entirely separated. What we have here is neither fusion nor a hybrid musical form. It is a perfectly symbiotic meeting of minds that banishes the darkness of criticism with its vigorous light. David James shows particular strength with every step he takes down these newly indeterminate paths, Covey-Crump and John Potter form a beautifully harmonized center, and Gordon Jones is the ever-present anchor of this darkly striated vessel. As for Garbarek, one can only listen and be enlightened.

Gavin Bryars: Vita Nova (ECM New Series 1533)

Gavin Bryars
Vita Nova

David James countertenor
Annemarie Dreyer
violin
Ulrike Lachner viola
Rebecca Firth cello
The Hilliard Ensemble
Gavin Bryars Ensemble
Recorded September 1993 at Propstei St. Gerold and CTS Studios (London)
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Chris Ekers
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Nomina sunt consequentia rerum.
(Names are the consequences of things.)
–Dante

The music of Gavin Bryars has always been a revelation in my life, and it all began with this 1994 album. In my opinion still one of ECM’s finest New Series releases, Vita Nova is the perfect introduction to the composer’s heartfelt musical cosmos.

Incipit Vita Nova (1989), for male alto and string trio, sets the short Latin phrases that appear in Dante’s otherwise Italian La Vita Nuova. The title means “A new life is beginning” and the piece was written to celebrate the birth of a child, aptly named Vita, to his close friends. That this “new life” was the inspiration for a piece on that very subject imbues the music with the mystery of creation. Its etherealness cannot be overstated, and anyone who adores the voice of David James may find no better showcase for it. The piece swells into audible existence, bobbing like a petal on water that stays in place as waves roll beneath it. From these languid beginnings James ravels into his own life as the strings apply a more pronounced rhythm, each weaving through the others with the deftness of divine messengers. James negotiates the text with a practiced throat, though every instrument has its moment, the cello navigating the words “Omnis vita est immortalis” (All life is immortal) like a thread through a needle. There is an airy pause before the opening motif returns, this time in descending half steps, forging microtonal harmonies between voice and violin.

Glorious Hill (1988) was the result of a Hilliard Ensemble commission. The text is from Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man and imagines a dialogue between God and Adam. Here, Adam is graced rather than cursed with self-awareness—the sacred gift of personal re-creation given to no other creatures in God’s domain, where free will becomes the determinant of human nature. It is a breathtaking piece, and one in which James also figures vividly at the center of a veritable tapestry of choral sounds. But where in Incipit the strings supplemented James with “vocal” gestures, here those gestures are explicitly taken up by the human body, which renders notes with even more fragility. James spreads the text over this choral backdrop in a veneer of supplication as the tenors weave a central drone. Voice-pairs and solos emerge in turns, shifting weight with richly varied effects. Consequently, each section of text seems to be treated as its own full composition. Some are antiphonal, while others are densely polyphonic. The beautiful call of “O Adam” goes straight to the heart, upon which the tenors launch into sustained undulations, even as James charts the most inspiring regions of his unparalleled craft. Gordon Jones provides a few glorious moments of his own. This masterful piece is by far one of Bryars’s finest and ends in shining resolution, folding ever inward into solemnity.

Four Elements (1990) redirects our attention with a larger instrumental ensemble. Scored as incidental music for a ballet by Lucinda Childs, the piece characterizes Water, Earth, Air, and Fire through a variety of tonal and rhythmic combinations (one has to take such pieces with a grain of salt, for the ways in which one views primary elements differs with subjective experience). “Water” opens with an ominous thud and is dominated by bass clarinet and bells, making for a nocturnal, oceanic sound that betrays only the slightest indications of coastline through the fog. Swells of marimba and piano plow the darkness of “Earth.” The pace accelerates in “Air” with a healthy dose of brass, of which alto sax provides much of the melodic thrust before fading into the fluegelhorn-led “Fire,” ending with a slow reverberant finish as James intones a delicate flame.

Sub Rosa (1986) is another ensemble piece, if of a far more intimate persuasion. Dedicated to Bill Frisell, whose track “Throughout” from the ECM album In Line Bryars has re-imagined here, the piece is otherworldly. The central presence of a recorder lends it an antiquated flair and further enhances its enigmatic title. This is perhaps the most pensive piece on the album and speaks of a mind that is spiritually in tune with its own goals and means of achieving them. Beautifully ascendant passages from the violin are overlaid with alluring swaths of recorder, at times struggling against the most delicate of dissonances. The piano marks its path steadily and slowly with triadic arpeggios. Intriguing doublings and an ascendant chord progression make Sub Rosa all the more transitory in its beauty. It skirts the line between waking and dreaming, placing careful steps in a realm where the spirit speaks more fluently than the lips.

Anyone who finds fulfillment in the music of such ECM-represented composers as Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli, and Alexander Knaifel should feel rather comfortable being surrounded by this most august music. Bryars is a discovery to be cherished. Listen and be moved.

The Hilliard Ensemble: Walter Frye (ECM New Series 1476)

 

Walter Frye

David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded January 1992, Stadtkirche Gönningen, Germany
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This early ECM New Series offering chronicles the music of Walter Frye, a 15th-century English composer whose biographical details are as elusive as his music is captivating. He is survived by a significant handful of vocal works, of which the Hilliard Ensemble gives us a thoughtful cross section. Of these, the Ave regina is the most well known, though the Missa Flos regalis forms the backbone of this altogether revelatory album. The mass itself—which, in true Hilliard fashion is divided among a selection of motets—is a brooding flow of delicate harmonies, seamless “hand-offs,” and intimate exchanges. Its inward-looking tone invites the listener into a prayerful space in which worldly cares are both the source of one’s burdens and the key to absolving them. Frye’s motets are also indicative of a great craftsman at work. Sospitati dedit is a compelling processional prosa (i.e., a celebratory song chanted before the gospel during religious festivals—in this case the Feast of St. Nicholas) that is the most rhythmically adventurous piece on the album. The Salve virgo is another breathtaking setting and soothes with its melodious unfolding. Also of note are the lovely rondeau Tout a par moi and Myn hertis lust, one of the few surviving examples we have of Frye’s English ballades. As for the Ave regina, performed here in three- and four-part versions, one can only praise its brevity and exquisite construction.

The countertenor lines stand out in every piece, not only because of David James’s flawless singing but also because of the ways in which Frye weaves them into the choral fabric at hand. This top-heaviness lends the music a peculiar balance that is meticulously maintained throughout. Frye has been represented elsewhere by the Ferrara Ensemble on their fine disc Northerne Wind. Along with this effort by the Hilliards, one can only hope the future will direct more attention toward a composer who might have easily been trampled in the march of history.