Trio Mediaeval
Words of the Angel
ECM (ecmrecords.com)

cd cover Three Norwegian sopranos advance a new recording focused on 13th & 14th century sacred vocal music of a masterful refinement that is difficult to reckon with a debut. John Potter of England's acclaimed Hilliard Ensemble has had an important hand in their development since 1998 and served as producer/academician on the project. The team assembled an intermixed polyphonic set of anonymous mass movements, from the Messe de Tournai (6 pieces), with Marian motets and sequences from English sources (9), comprising the bulk, and stamping it uniquely with one contemporary Eastern Orthodox selection by composer Ivan Moody (1964-). Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Torunn Ostrem Ossum also perform a solo piece each and combine for a fourth, of more solemn monophonic lauds from Cortona, that add contrast and depth in completing this "musical space". The finished recording, whose texts are dedicated almost exclusively to the blessed mother, successful! ly accomplishes what has been done extensively by groups like Anonymous 4, taking music once the province of men and applying feminine timbre, to rapturous effect.

Polyphony is an a capella art which ornaments multiple vocal lines around one melody, like a many-stranded necklace, and attains maximum impact whenever it includes a continuous drone voice. Without a fourth voice, the three women chant in flowing triple parts, often singing varied melody contours but beginning and ending their lines in unison. A peak of perfect serenity is reached in this regard on the tenth of twenty tracks "Salve virgo virginum". At the other end of the program, the Moody title piece "Words of the Angel" (1998) seems to have been included to remind us that all the music here might best be perceived as modern objects, not to be mistaken for historical recreation. This orthodox prayer, which was composed specifically for them, has no other kin remotely like it in the set and yet this lone performance unambiguously places Trio Mediaeval on their own ground, safely outside any problem of authenticity. It is far and away! the most potent moment on the recording with its (recent) close harmonies and dramatic spire-like punctuations.

Substantial proprieties are necessarily built into commercial resurrection of ancient sacred music and this recording does not avoid the crisis of intent and license faced by conservatory-trained professionals. Fortunately, Trio Mediaeval's voices are so good, of such immaculate pitch and so well matched to each other tonally, the sheer sonic wield of throats seems to transcend the questions of proper spiritual utility and propriety. Perhaps assisted by the music itself, their work here has that rare kind of transparency in which the quality of voice 'personality' or personal inflection almost completely disappears. The voices seem disembodied, as though singing from a perspective beyond the realm of accomplishment and ego. While lacking an overall liturgical unity (naturally, these are singers not nuns) this first effort is an exciting discovery and Trio Mediaeval's treatment succeeds in comforting while it insinuates the audience (and themselves! ) as accomplices to the new form of worship founded solely on offering beauty.

[Post Script ECM has boldly staked the value of this recording on the voices alone. While Words of the Angel is set in English, the remaining reprinted prayers are in Latin only. ECM seems to assume that anyone who might care about the original point of the music already speaks Latin, or that translated meaning of the prayers is unimportant to non-Latin readers.] - Steve Taylor

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