Recording of April 2002: Words of The Angel

TRIO MEDIAEVAL: Words of The Angel
Anonymous: Messe de Tournai. Moody: Words of The Angel. Misc. 13th-century monophonic and 14th-century polyphonic works. Trio Mediaeval: Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, Torunn Østrem Ossum, sopranos
ECM 1753 (CD). 2001. John Potter, prod.; Peter Laenger, eng. DDD. TT: 65:45
Performance *****
Sonics *****

The development of a method of notating music in a sophisticated manner—one that could measure time and rhythm—at the end of the 13th century was nothing short of revolutionary. It allowed a religious ceremony to be treated as an art form, and for choir leaders to be treated as artists. The earliest known Mass by a single, known composer is the Messe de Notre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut, dating from about 1350; the Mass recorded here, recent studies have shown, probably predates Machaut's by a quarter century or more.

The Tournai Mass was discovered only in 1862 by the Tournai Cathedral's archivist, and consists of polyphonic settings of the Ordinary (the standardized portion of the Roman Catholic liturgy)—the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei—as well as a final movement, Ite missa est ("Go—the mass is ended").

The Tournai is important for many reasons: It is not only the first known complete polyphonic Mass, but because its different sections were probably written by different composers, its several styles range from the uncomplicated to the lavish. The Tournai Mass is a stunning, fascinating look into early polyphony. Think of it as the aural equivalent of visiting an early Gothic cathedral to which architectural changes were made—and remained visible—for the next 50 years, years in which the levels of complexity and taste changed drastically.

The Tournai's Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei are musically far simpler and more direct than the Gloria (with its bouncy contrapuntal staccatos) and Credo, in which the composers take far greater chances with rhythms and harmonies. The Ite missa est is even more daring: A profane French chanson is juxtaposed with an impassioned prayer, and long notes are sung by one voice while other rhythms go on around it. In other words, three texts are being sung simultaneously at different tempos. (ECM unfortunately finds it unnecessary to include in the booklet translations of any of the texts; listeners would have appreciated being enlightened.)

This performance of the Ordinary is interspersed with other pieces from the same period, some polyphonic, some chant-like. There are three solos, one for each member of the Trio Mediaeval.

Courageously, near the end, before the Ite missa est, is inserted a five-minute piece by the contemporary British composer Ivan Moody, in English, of words from the Greek Orthodox Easter liturgy. Though clearly composed six centuries later, Words of The Angel blends to make this disc a gorgeous whole. Angel differs noticeably from the Tournai only insofar as the tessitura is concerned (it takes one of the sopranos up to a high D) and in its number of dissonant kinks (although the Ite missa est is about as "modern"-sounding as a piece can get, and dissonances abound in the other sections as well).

Moody's harmonic riffs on the word shine are ravishing; elsewhere, Words of The Angel is by turns pious, Arvo Pärt-like, and simply beautiful. Tempos are quick for the Mass parts, but the harmonies and rhythms are never blurred.

Women, of course, would never have been permitted to sing this music at the time it was written; we are luckier nowadays. The three Norwegian and Swedish women who make up Trio Mediaeval came together in 1997 while studying with the Hilliard Ensemble—impeccable credentials, indeed—and the Hilliard's John Potter is this recording's producer.

If you like Anonymous 4, you're in for a real treat: These three women have astonishingly beautiful voices, with individual timbres that nonetheless mingle seamlessly, whether in the simple, chant-like moments or in the high-flying Moody piece. And while Anonymous 4 can occasionally sound faceless, the Trio Mediaeval sings with feeling, depth, and—dare I say it?—soul. This is a magnificent disc, exquisitely recorded with no artificial ambience, and not to be missed.—Robert Levine