Paul Hillier & Theatre of Voices
Fragments
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907276 (Harmoniamundi.com)

cd cover Over the centuries Christianity has bifurcated again and again into new regional churches that developed their own unique prayer legacy in music. Modern a capella voice professionals studying the remains of old music, often as incomplete or damaged manuscripts, encounter rituals and worship traditions, once fathered by a single source, that are ultimately, in many different ways, fragmented. Paul Hillier has recorded prolifically since the mid-70s and perhaps only a researcher & interpreter of his stature could pull off a recording that collects up mere scraps from five different sectors of the European church. And only Hillier could hope to unify them, even if abstractly, through the naked truth of beauty and a fragmented past. In their latest project, Theatre of Voices has resurrected anywhere between one and seven ancient scores for each of the five areas represented: Italy (13th C.), Greece (14th C.), Russia (17th C.), England (13-14th C.), and France (13th C). Though each has its distinct flavor, there is an overall austerity and common harmonic genetics in all five territories' music. Texturally, the music breaks along one main division into the western (catholic) and eastern (orthodox) experiences. The former includes Italy, England and France, whose prayers have a more spacious, formally ornamented contour, and the latter from Greece and Russia which submit richer more piquant close harmonies that ravish the ear. The Theatre of Voices' six male singers ably charge these fragments with vibrancy through accurate tone and disciplined synchrony, but without letting virtuosity come between the prayer and the laiety or audience, nor by effecting overly dramatic or emotional interpretation. It cannot be overstated how challenging it must be to take on the specific virtuosity of any one church's musical tradition, especially the Russian and Greek here, and present each with a quality that you could call convincingly authentic and prayerful. But this is exactly what Hillier and group have achieved.

While an instructive and compact comparative study that parallels the effect of, say, the chapter on Christianity in Huston Smith's "The World's Religions", the Greek and Russian portions will leave one hungry for more. The project is underscored by the almost mystic realization that only through music is religious diversity rescued from the perils that plague it in all other matters of spiritual identity (doctrinal, philosophical, political etc). By the way, Mr. Hillier recommends Vladimir Morosan's "magnificent" Musica Russica Series and L'Oiseau-Lyre's 14th Century Polyphonic Series, for those looking for further important recordings which preface this one. - Steve Taylor

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