Trio Mediaeval: Aquilonis (ECM New Series 2416)

Aquilonis

Trio Mediaeval
Aquilonis

Anna Maria Friman voice, Hardanger fiddle, melody chimes
Linn Andrea Fuglseth voice, portable organ, melody chimes
Berit Opheim voice, melody chimes
Recorded June 2014 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Recording supervision: John Potter
An ECM Production

Trio Mediaeval are Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and, making her ECM debut, Berit Opheim (who in 2014 replaced Torunn Østrem Ossum). In their sixth New Series program, the Scandinavian songstresses bring a characteristically thoughtful cohesion to their selections and the themes under which they live again. The album’s title means “North Wind,” but as recording supervisor John Potter explains in his album note, the metaphor is as much temporal as geographical, emphasizing as it does the Trio’s centuries-long reach.

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Furthest from the present are two Italian sacred songs from the 12th century. “Benedicti e llaudati” (Sacred and blessed apostles…) and “Fammi cantar l’amor” (Let me sing of the love…) contrast radiant harmonies spun around a core of chant with monophonic lines of flight. The drone also figures as a natural extension of three Norwegian folk songs, which find the singers accompanying themselves for the first time on instruments (the enriching percussion heard on 2007’s Folk Songs was courtesy of Birger Mistereggen). The Hardanger fiddle, played by Friman, is both heart and lungs of “Ingen vinner frem til den evige ro” (Eternal rest is the reward of…), and its ghost whispers in the air of the vocal solo “Gud unde oss her at leve så” (God gave us grace to live), a string of beauty untying itself in righteousness.

A step closer brings us to 14th-century Iceland and the vespers of the Office of St. Thorlak, beautifully unpacked from their plainchant rudiments into braids of censer smoke. The masterful arrangements enchant with their folkish brogue, sounding at times more like songs of the Irish plains than prayerful nights. Now it’s Fuglseth on the portable organ who gleans a droning undercurrent from the score and copies its DNA until it breathes. Yet another step lands us in the more pronounced polyphony of three 15th-century English carols, of which “Ecce quod natura mutat sua jura” (Behold, nature changes her laws) and “Alleluia: A newë work” are sublime highlights. The latter was the first piece the original Trio ever sung and makes its glowing presence known to a wider audience at last.

In the realm of the living, English composer Andrew Smith contributes three symbiotic pieces to the Trio’s repertoire. Of these, “Ioseph fili David” (Joseph, son of David) is the crowning jewel of the program, while “Ave regina caelorum” (Hail, Queen of heaven) breaks glass with its light. Swedish composer Anders Jormin, better known to ECM fans as a jazz bassist with a classical heart, solely offers “Ama.” Based on a poem by Virgil, it is a miniature of overlaid shapes, transparent and turned askew until they form new harmonies in search of the old. The singers themselves compose three pieces, each a vital organ to the program’s functioning body, planets without satellites whose clouds welcome all suns. And American composer William Brooks yields the somber yet tender “Vale, dulcis amice” (Farewell, sweet friend) on which the program ends.

The combination of self-accompaniment and new music secures the women of Trio Mediaeval as the reigning torchbearers of the now-defunct Hilliard Ensemble, of whom they are superlative protégés. Like their legendary mentors, they are able to move from one coil of existence to the next without slightest loss of form. Here’s hoping they continue to do so for decades to come.

(To hear samples of Aquilonis, click here.)

Trio Mediaeval: A Worcester Ladymass (ECM New Series 2166)

A Worcester Ladymass

Trio Mediaeval
A Worcester Ladymass

Anna Maria Friman voice
Linn Andrea Fuglseth voice
Torunn Østrem Ossum voice
Recorded February 2010, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It’s astonishing to reflect on the breadth that Oslo’s Trio Mediaeval has represented in just four albums. From sacred choral music of the 14th and 15th centuries to the more contemporary yet kindred writing of Ivan Moody, Sungji Hong, and Gavin Bryars, not to mention a visceral account of Norwegian folk songs, sopranos Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and Torunn Østrem Ossum have, since their 1997 debut, been at the forefront of a style of vocal blending that also distinguishes the Hilliard Ensemble, under whom they studied to bring out the finest of their abilities.

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(Photo: CF-Wesenberg)

For this, their fifth ECM New Series album, they return to their namesake with a 13th-century Mass to the Virgin Mary, reconstructed from manuscripts found in a Benedictine Abbey in the English Midlands. When looking through the Worcester fragments—which survived Henry VIII’s purging sweep in the 1530s only because they were used to bind other codices—the singers found no Credo, and so commissioned Bryars to rectify their absence by contributing one, along with a Benedicamus Domino. As Friman further notes, today interpretation of music from the middle ages is at the whim of the performer and can be far removed from the religious bonds of its genesis. She and her cohorts embrace this severance wholeheartedly as a path to fresh performance, producing music not meant for concert audiences that breathes with its own flair (if not flare).

From the lilting cadence of the opening Salve sancta parens, it is clear that Trio Mediaeval has sculpted a sound-world all its own. In so gathering their winds together, the singers spin a theme for the ages that is at once entrenched in and severed from time. Most significantly, theirs is a space that listeners can inhabit. As two voices lock into a drone for the plainsong of a third, we can already sense the depth of technical achievement required to produce such seamless atmospheres. It is in this respect that A Worcester Ladymass stands out: in these three throats its technical attentions become, like those of the Hilliards, a fully embodied practice. One notices this in the meticulous pacing throughout. Striking enviable balance between interruption and pause, the gaps between phrases are neither contrived nor jarring. This is especially true of the Munda Maria, a vocal round that cleanses us from the inside. In such cyclical pieces as this and the Gloria, our three angels enact a Derridean sort of reiteration—which is to say, not mere repetition but rather a constant reformation of context. The same holds true of the Bryars Credo, which places a gentle stopper on the clock hands of their art, spinning one hand backward and the other forward. And while Byrars does craft a slightly dissonant edge, his changes are no less unexpected than, say, those in the Grata iuvencula of eight centuries ago.

Another remarkable feature is the fluid extension of syllables in the O sponsa Dei electa and the De supernis sedibus. Without falling into these open-mouthed traps, the Trio draws from them new webs of meaning. The brief addition of organ in the Benedicta / Virgo Dei genitrix and Agnus Dei only intensifies the celestial nature of those connecting lines. All of this makes the shorter pieces stand out in greater relief. Together, they form a sonic rondelle, which is illuminated by the light of the Mass interspersed among them. Much of that light is centered in the holy Sanctus. It serves the text as one might pray: kneeling and alone.

A Worcester Ladymass brings me back to the many early music recordings that enticed me as a novice listener. It finds its essence not in consolidation but through fragmentation, so that each section becomes a votive service unto itself. If the transcendence of the Sponsa rectoris omnium can be said to be representative of the whole, it communicates with an intuitive awareness of temporality that hovers in midair, not quite of heaven or of earth. For ages philosophers have tried to espouse the arbitrariness of the sign, but music such as this proves that the sign is life itself.

(To hear samples from A Worcester Ladymass, click here.)

Trio Mediaeval: Folk Songs (ECM New Series 2003)

 

Trio Mediaeval
Folk Songs

Anna Maria Friman
Linn Andrea Fuglseth
Torunn Østrem Ossum
Birger Mistereggen percussion and jew’s harp
Recorded February 2007 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Since 1997, Trio Mediaeval has been unrolling a most distinct musical carpet. Yet nowhere has it made so consistent a statement as through the Norwegian folk songs that make up this, the group’s fourth album for ECM. With help from percussionist Birger Mistereggen, the Trio pulls the listener by the hand through a world of mythic scope. Mistereggen’s contributions are intuitive, drawing us into the spirit of things with a touch of the land for every ethereal weave loomed above him. His propulsive beat in “Villemann og Magnhild” (Villemann and Magnhild), for one, enhances the fablistic structure prevalent throughout so much of the program, and even in its absence renders such “Nu solen går ned” (The sun is setting) all the more dream-like for the precision of its harmonies. Styles range further from call and response [“Tjovane” (The thieves)] to lullaby [“So ro, godt barn” (Rest now, sweet child)], battle cry [“Rolandskvadet” (The song of Roland)] to supplication [“Folkefrelsar, til oss kom” (Saviour of the nations, come)], achieving emotive peaks in such forlorn sonic geodes as “I mine kåte ungdomsdagar” (In my reckless, youthful days) and in the solo “Nu vilar hela jorden” (All the earth now rests in peace).

Folk Songs cuts to the heart of its inspirations while also renewing those inspirations with clothing of the Trio’s design. The album also continues Manfred Eicher’s vision, which plunges its hands into the very earth and emerges with music that is uncannily familiar. The astute ECM fan will, for example, notice the wonderful “Bruremarsj frå Gudbrandsdalen” (Wedding march from Gudbrandsdalen) as a source on Jan Garbarek’s seminal Triptykon. These continuities are not without intuition, and speak to a deeper thread that links tradition to all eras with an unbroken line of affection.

Trio Mediaeval: Stella Maris (ECM New Series 1929)

 

Trio Mediaeval
Stella Maris

Anna Maria Friman soprano
Linn Andrea Fuglseth soprano
Torunn Østrem Ossum soprano
Recorded February 2005 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Recording producer: John Potter
Executive Producer: Manfred Eicher

For their third ECM outing, the sopranos of Trio Medieaval set their vocal sights to 12fth- and 13th-century French and English (mostly conductus) chants, nestling within these a newly commissioned mass from Korean-born Sungji Hong. That the former (with one exception) performed here were never meant to be sung—or, for that matter, heard—by women at the time of their composition matters not when basking in the vitality of this recording: further proof that music is open to all who touch it, just as those who are touched by it become open to all.

In her liner notes, Nicky Losseff rightly speaks of sweetness, for one cannot help but savor in the fragrant wash of polyphony that is the opening Flos regalis virginalis. This, along with the protractions of Veni creator spiritus and the Beata viscera, comprise some of the program’s most affecting moments. Haunting also are the sustained drone of O Maria, stella maris and the transportive strains of Dou way Robyn.

Yet the most crystalline pillars in this house of mist and time resolve themselves in Hong’s beautiful Missa Lumen de lumine. Written in 2002 and dedicated to the Trio, it grows like vines in ruins grown truer with age. Like the light of its title, this mass is composed of prismatic strands, some of which unify in single threads of chant and others of which refract, visualizing the nature of their own splitting. Between the heavenly Gloria and Agnus Dei, one is left drifting in these precise rhythms and changes. Hong is highly respectful of the texts of the Mass Ordinary and forms of each line a secret braid, ending often with a subtle flourish in the spirit.

Anonymity in music is purity, filled with hope and the sparkle with wisdom. It allows us to strip music of its egotism and appreciate it as something out of place, if not out of time, and therefore of the world. In listening, we become the music’s inhabitants, not in a relationship of power, but of recognition. When paired with a highly composed work like Hong’s, the surrounding chants indeed take on a luminous quality, forever drawn to a heaven of undying voices. This is the magic that Trio Mediaeval brings to every note sung, and this just might be the most intimately appropriate album with which to begin that journey.

Trio Mediaeval: Soir, dit-elle (ECM New Series 1869)

 

Trio Mediaeval
Soir, dit-elle

Anna Maria Friman soprano
Linn Andrea Fuglseth soprano
Torunn Østrem Ossum soprano
Recorded April 2003, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by John Potter
Executive Producer: Manfred Eicher

The music on this, the second album from the Trio Mediaeval, represents 500 years of creation. And yet, as John Potter notes, “in a sense it is older than that, tapping into the continuing present—a timeless present, perhaps—that is what medieval music means to us.” These three Scandinavian singers have done so much for the music they touch, and in turn British composers Gavin Bryars, Ivan Moody, Andrew Smith, along with Ukrainian Oleh Harkavvy, have nourished that sound with newly fashioned music of their own. At the heart of these dedicatory contributions lies the Missa “Alma redemptoris mater” of Leonel Power (fl. 15th century). The mass is a fine example of early Renaissance polyphony and through the Gloria alone expresses a cathedral’s worth of light and shadow. The tonal qualities of the singers and the sung are luminescent, all coming to a flowering head in the visceral Agnus Dei. Power’s music comes to us in spite of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, thereby speaking to us all the more lucidly through a history that might have silenced it. Its clarity is as pervasive as its texts and forms a warm framework through and around which the women of Trio Mediaeval weave their artfully conceived program.

Plainchant is the inhalation and exhalation of Harkavvy’s Kyrie (2002), as of the program as a whole, which unfurls bursts of polyphony in its pores. From ashes to flesh and back to ashes, it paints a tableau of life in barest terms, exceeded in simplicity only by the solo laude of Bryars, who also aligns all three voices in his stilling Ave regina gloriosa (2003). The Ave Maria (2000) and Regina caeli (2002) of Smith expand upon the gorgeousness of these horizons, again inscribing broad mosaics of faith with minimal vocal borders. Only when we get to Moody’s The Troparion of Kassiani (1999) do we find ourselves wrapped in a more detailed cartography. Its shifting microtonal harmonies, evocative textual phrasings, and resplendent highs cut to the core of the singers’ art. Moody also offers the pinnacle of this disc in his 2002 composition A Lion’s Sleep, if only because it seems to draw upon the Trio’s talents most intimately.

In light of the above impressions, however, I am wary of treating the album as anything but a unified whole. Like all Trio programs, it is structured like a stained glass window, each section having been soldered into place with great individual detail, but which comes to vibrant life when vocal light shines through it. Only then does the image tell its story, share its moral lesson, and open its wings to an understanding of vibration and sound that is as constant as the sun in its veins.

Trio Mediaeval: Words of the Angel (ECM New Series 1753)

 

Trio Mediaeval
Words of The Angel

Anna Maria Friman soprano
Linn Andrea Fuglseth soprano
Torunn Østrem Ossum soprano
Recorded December 1999, Gönningen
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by John Potter

The fourteenth-century Messe de Tournai is the earliest extant polyphonic mass and provides the skeleton for this debut release by Trio Mediaeval. In his accompanying notes, John Potter (who also produced the album) stresses that the survival of such a manuscript is something of a miracle. Written on the backs of ledgers, the mass could easily have suffered the destructive fate to which most such music succumbed in an age where paper was a precious commodity. That it emerged from a war-torn Europe unscathed is likely “because a conscientious accountant couldn’t bear to throw away old financial records.” An overtly Marian theme pervades this disc, as evidenced by the English-sourced motets and sequences leaved between the Mass, and further in a selection of lauds from thirteenth-century Cortona.

Three solos dot the program, each surrounded by luminescent swaths of divine vibrations. Of the chants, Salve mater misericordie is the brightest, and refracts light like a window into the Trio’s further projects. The words “Stella Maris” clearly stand out here, foreshadowing the title of their third album, while the cover art (a still from Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma) cues their second, Soir dit-elle. The Mass itself rests on a delicately consonant edge, ladling our attention between voices and the echoes they project. Nestled like a diamond in an already captivating program is the title piece by Ivan Moody. Dramatic key changes and a snake-like alto core make it one of the most intriguing pieces the Trio has recorded thus far.

Hailing from Norway, Trio Mediaeval honed their craft through focused study with the Hilliard Ensemble, who seem to have passed on not a small amount of adventurous spirit. Often compared with the now defunct Anonymous 4, the Trio walk a striking musical path uniquely their own. Sinuous drones and anchoring lines are gloriously configured, and articulations rendered with vivid care. Words of the angel deserve to be sung by voices of the angel, and here they most certainly are.