Monastic Chant 2 CD
Theatre Of Voices

This HM Gold re-issue draws together two previous CDs by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, the Age of Cathedrals and Hoquetus. As the titles make clear, the one thing this CD is not is a collection exclusively of Monastic Chant; in fact, it is more properly considered as a collection of early (if not the earliest) sacred polyphony. The period covered is from the mid-twelth century, and the innovations of Magister Leoninus, right through to the fascinatingly egotistical work of Machaut, and the proto-Renaissance voice of Ciconia at the very end of the fourteenth. As one might expect from this specialist ensemble, the performances are astonishingly lucid, and entirely convincing—Hillier segregates women’s and men’s voices as contemporary practice would have required, bringing them together only in works of a more indirectly sacred character.

I must admit to being entirely won over to this kind of scholarship-infused period performance. The revolution in early music research has resulted in music-making at its most radical, not least in the development of a relatively unanimous mediaeval style. Comparison between performances of hockets (hoquet = “hiccup”) in 1968—by, say, David Munrow’s group—and these from 1999 show just how far we have come. The Theatre of Voices cope unflinchingly with most elaborately intertwined polyphonic gnarls—for example, Deus tuorum militum/de flore martyrorum, one of those mind-numbingly complex multiple-texted motets that throw a gauntlet down to modern notions of musical accessibility—while retaining both expressively lyrical melodic contours and precise enunciation.

CD1, the Age of Cathedrals makes no use of female voices at all, and presents what is known as the ars antiqua, the sacred music of the century and a half from 1150. It breathes the air of an entirely alien world, one of piety without art, and grinding monotony; Hillier and his singers manage to invoke the cloister, and the interminable liturgy, punctuated only by labour and sleep. This is nonetheless balanced by the awe-inspiring beauty of the music, and it is extraordinary to think that this beauty was really only a by-product of worship. The program on this first CD travels from the elemental, elementary polyphony from the Abbey of St Martial in Limoges, via the seminal organa of Leonin, to the grandiose—and to our ears, mesmeric—patterning of Perotin’s organa quadrupla.

The second CD contrasts with CD1 by being a portrait of the ars nova, which term describes the music of the fourteenth century, more or less. In addition to the selfconsciously arty hocketed motets, the program includes some organetto-style instrumental performances of works from the Codex Faenza. These charming proto-tientos lack the colourful harmonic elisions of the vocal works, but introduce the element of decorative extemporisation that may have emerged from the highly-developed fauxbourdon style—also the belligerently shawmy organ sound in Or sus, vous dormès trop, worthy of a shehnai player, reminds us that the crusades were still in recent memory. It is salutary to be reminded that instrumental music existed in parallel with vocal music from the thirteenth century onwards, even if it was not until the 1600s that it emerged as a genre in its own right.

Perhaps because of its more archaic character, the Age of Cathedrals is somewhat more satisfying: the ground it covers is less variegated. Hearing the mosaic of styles and sounds on Hoquetus creates an inappropriate sense of range that would have been entirely unnoticed by the inhabitants of the era—for them change would have been so slow as to be barely perceptible. But this is the perpetual debate for performers of this music—does one aim for consistency that can border on dullness, or create a historically-unjustified panorama? Neither solution is entirely satisfactory, although the latter is perhaps more consistent with the aspirations of the ars  nova composers.

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.