Delightful and quirky - Gramophone

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Ivan Moody, Gramophone
Tirsdag, 18. januar Link

This is a delightful and quirky programme (something to be expected of Paul Hillier, of course), mixing contemporary music with Italian medieval laude. We begin with Caroline Shaw’s and the swallow, a setting of words from Psalm 84. Its lushness surprised me, having previously only heard her virtuoso Partita for Eight Voices, but what is equally evident is the sophistication of the vocal writing, exploring long-resonating chords to create an atmosphere of warmth and hope.

The other contemporary works are by Julia Wolfe – another psalm-setting, this time a verse from Psalm 34, Guard my tongue – and a series of short pieces by Pärt. Wolfe’s piece is extremely stark and unremitting. It might be thought to resemble Pärt in some ways – most notably the way the (very short) text dictates the chordal and melodic structure – but its successive, imploring waves of sound produce a very different effect.

Pärt’s Fátima-inspired Drei Hirtenkinder, on a verse from Psalm 8, has always struck me as somewhat enigmatic. It’s over in a flash, but full of events. Both Kleine Litanei and Virgencita are more ‘classical’ Pärt, with their repeated invocations with frequently unexpected cadences and carefully balanced dissonances. Habitare fratres in unum, in spite of its Latin title, is a setting in Church Slavonic of Psalm 132 (133), and is another fascinating demonstration of the way different languages affect the composer’s writing. Here there are clear echoes of the Russian choral tradition, though no chant is used and there is no direct quotation of any other music. Alleluia tropus, in honour of St Nicholas, is also in Slavonic, a setting of the apolytikion or dismissal hymn for the Saint’s feast, with added Alleluias. The final piece on the album, Ja ma kuulsin hääle … (‘And I heard a voice …’), is a setting in Estonian of a verse from the book of Revelation, and the clarity of that language means that the work has a brightness to it that reflects its description of the ‘voice from heaven’ and provides a suitably exultant finish to the sequence.

I have spoken about the contemporary pieces as though they were grouped together, but in fact the way to listen to this album is to go from beginning to end, hearing them interspersed with the laude as they are programmed. This repertoire, being entirely monophonic but full of magnificent melodies, gives all kinds of opportunity for different treatments, and Hillier uses the full range, from unaccompanied solo voice to melody with drone and organum-like parallel chords, and exploiting male and female voices separately and together. Ars Nova are, as usual, fully in command of both early and recent styles: this is a sparkling, thought-provoking recording of great originality.