Recording of February 1997: The Age of Cathedrals

THEATER OF VOICES: The Age of Cathedrals
Paul Elliott, Alan Bennet; Theater of Voices: Neal Rogers, Mark Daniel, Hugh Davies, Tom Hart, Boyd Jarrell; Paul Hillier, dir.
Harmonia Mundi France HMC 907157 (CD only). Robina G. Young, prod.; Craig Silvey, eng. AAD? 1996. TT: 77:18
Performance ******
Sonics *****

This disc is an exploration of the rich polyphonic tradition of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, as well as that of the abbey of St. Martial de Limoges (Aquitaine), itself the wellspring of French medieval poetry and music, both monophonic and polyphonic. The four Aquitainian selections are anonymous, in keeping with the traditions of the monastery, which fostered community and discouraged self-promotion. Most of the remaining 12 compositions, from Notre Dame, are not only credited but redolent of the cathedral's exalted position as the center of the 12th and 13th centuries' liturgical flowering—there are compositions by Adam of St. Victor, Albertus Parisiensis, Philip the Chancellor, and Perotinus.

Edward H. Roesner's fascinating notes point out that not only do we know the names of those illustrious musicians, but that, unlike the monks of St. Martial, they wrote these pieces—working with quill and parchment. Musicians learning them did so from the manuscripts rather than from the memories of those who had performed them previously. In breaking with the oral tradition, as well as through the use of new rhythms, language, and harmonies, they were harbingers of the modern era.

The works are beautiful and full of mystery. Although some were linked to specific feast-days, most were intended to embellish the day-to-day celebration of the religious life, and consist of sermons, poetic meditations on scripture passages, songs of praise to the Virgin and the Trinity, and, in one case—Philip the Chancellor's Ve mundo—a lecture on the corruption of certain church officials.

This makes for a varied program, despite the unity of the concept. Perotinius's Mors is intricately voiced and filled with contrapuntal play, whereas the anonymous In hoc anni circulo from St. Martial, with its chanted lessons rising over a vocal drone, sounds downright somber.

It isn't the cleverness or the variety of the program that makes this our Recording of the Month, however. The performances and the recording are, quite simply, intoxicatingly, sumptuously beautiful. Engineer Craig Silvey has rendered the reverberant acoustic of St. Vincent's Church in San Rafael, California with lambent precision. The Theater of Voices fills that space, their voices as seemingly solid as a brilliant shaft of light—growing and glowing in the still air. I've rarely heard so far into a recorded acoustic as I can with this one, and the tones that fill it ring pure and warm, yet are informed by detail. The harmonies are precise and bold: There's no place to hide when voices stand as brilliantly exposed as they do in such a perfectly drawn acoustic, and the ensemble responds with performances that are strong yet personal, and very, very human.

We tend to think of the past, particularly the Middle Ages, as dark and distant. With this lovely, luminous performance, Theater of Voices shows us that it ain't necessarily so. Our common humanity with the people who created these works—and with those who took pleasure in them—assures us that the light we perceive in these treasures is not the cool glow of nostalgia, but a glimpse at the spark of life itself.—Wes Phillips