Recently in Recordings
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24 Jun 2007
Sacred Music from Notre-Dame Cathedral
In charting the history of music in the West, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Paris loom large as a golden age of innovative polyphony, a golden age that is much the fruits of two composers, Leoninus and Perotinus.
Their famous magnus liber organi—the great book of
organum—preserves polyphonic settings of responsorial chants, works that define and establish
Gothic sound much as the cathedral in which they were sung, Notre Dame in Paris, defines and
establishes our notions of Gothic space.
Tonus Peregrinus offers three of the most substantial Notre Dame works—the two-voice
Viderunt by Leoninus and the four-voice Viderunt and Sederunt by Perotinus. Pitts divides his
ensemble into lower- and upper-ranged forces, and the opportunity to hear this repertory in both
ranges is a welome one. In the main, these forces remain discrete and the polyphony is
performed appropriately by soloists. In one instance, however—at the end of the two-voiced
Viderunt—Pitts combines the registers. The octave doubling in itself is not problematic, but in
that the doubling requires transforming a solo line into a choral one, there is a loss of
responsiveness and flexibility in the process, and that is a loss, albeit only a momentary one.
The performances of these large-scaled organa are otherwise impressive. In the discantus
sections—the sections where the notes of all the parts move together in rhythmic pattern—Pitts
allows the music to unfold at a congenially leisurely pace. This contrast to many modern
performances allows singer and listener alike to dwell in the time rather than to push the time
ahead; the more contemplative turn is an attractive one. In the solo sections, Richard Eteson
deserves special mention for his wonderfully contoured sense of both individual notes and
phrase. Similarly, Rebecca Hickey’s monophonic conductus, Beata viscera, is rapturous,
expressive, and exquisite, a memorable opening to the whole program.
The program is one that shows the signs of special care in its construction, for it is obvious that
Pitts wants to demonstrate historical development here. For instance, the two-voiced organal
setting of Viderunt is followed by substitute clausulae and a motet on part of its foundational
chant. The clausulae are short sections of a minute or less, whose purpose in the program is
surely instructive, rather than aesthetic. And these are followed in turn by the four-voice setting
of the same chant. Thus, in large part, the program is showing a notable variety of ways of
treating the same pre-existent melody, and this variety developed within the school of Notre
Dame. In a similar vein, Pitts remains instructive with the inclusion of a psalm whose twenty
verses are sung in different intervallic configurations to demonstrate the range of possibilities
described in the ninth-century treatise, the Scholia enchiriadis, famous for being among the first
theoretical sources to describe polyphony. It is an interesting pedagogical aside in the program,
but one that does not distract from the splendid singing of the large-scale pieces.
The ensemble’s use of Roman Latin pronunciation is curious, and one might have welcomed
their sonic palette being extended and enriched with period French pronunciation. This,
however, is but a small quibble; the recording is impressive.