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Trio Mediaeval's Worcester Ladymass

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A Worcester Ladymass,
Trio Mediaeval

(released on March 15, 2011)
ECM New Series 2166 | 50'59"
[Listen on NPR]

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Worcester Fragments,
Orlando Consort
We are great admirers of the singing of Trio Mediaeval, having reviewed these three Scandinavian women in concert in 2005 and 2008 and enjoyed their recordings. Their new disc returns to their best territory, late medieval polyphony juxtaposed with modern music, and their sound is as pristine as it ever was. This program is centered on some of the pieces of the so-called Worcester Fragments, a partial collection of music, mostly three-part polyphony, sung at Worcester Cathedral. The book was destroyed in the Protestant Reformation, cut up into pieces used to bind other books: the fragments were pieced back together and transcribed by musicologist Luther Dittmer from groupings at Oxford's Bodleian Library, with other shards of the manuscript still in the Worcester Cathedral Library. The music is not unknown on disc, with recordings by the Orlando Consort and at least some of the pieces included on programs by Paul Hillier and Theater of Voices.

What makes this disc of interest, besides the refined, ethereal singing, is that it is a hypothetical reconstruction of a Mass for the feast of the Assumption of Mary, on August 15. (For that reason, the program inevitably recalls the two Ladymass discs by Anonymous 4, An English Ladymass and A Lammas Ladymass -- the former is one of my all-time favorite recordings of medieval music.) Worcester Cathedral was maintained by a community of Benedictine monks, until the 16th century when they were driven out by Henry VIII, and the Virgin Mary was the patroness of their monastery, the Abbey of St. Mary's. The concert includes settings of the Proper and other Marian texts, with some plainchants taken from a 13th-century Worcester gradual, plus settings of the Ordinary (the editions used here were prepared by musicologist Nicky Losseff, of the University of York, one of the group's regular collaborators). Faced with the missing parts, a Credo and a Benedicamus Domino, Trio Medieval commissioned new settings by contemporary composer Gavin Bryars (completed in 2008), with whom they have also collaborated before. His compositions, rather than sticking out, merge seamlessly with the older music.

The ECM sound is, as usual, impeccable, captured in the delectable acoustic of the Propstei St. Gerold in Austria, where a number of the label's artists record. The booklet, however, is not particularly helpful on a number of counts, not least because the Latin texts are printed in the booklet without English translation (other listeners might object to this more strongly than I). This seems to reflect the indifference of the musicians to the original Catholic context of this music, a point on which the liner notes, for example, are somewhat evasive. The group's self-avowed mission is to interpret these pieces not as medieval music but as contemporary music -- thus the pairing with new music.

Trio Mediaeval will undertake a brief North American tour later this month (March 23 to 31), with visits to Toronto, Kansas City (Mo.), University Park (Pa.), and Dartmouth College -- but not to Washington.

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