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music: concert review

Trio Mediaeval

  • And the Toronto Consort
  • At St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto on Wednesday

Recycling was an ordinary part of life long before we gave it a name. Thrifty monks in 13th-century England used pieces of old music manuscripts in the bindings of newer books, which is how a wonderful trove of medieval songs was preserved.

The Norwegian a cappella ensemble Trio Mediaeval and English musicologist Nicky Losseff sifted through those fragments and extracted a mass related to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. The group recorded the mass for its album A Worcester Ladymass (out this month on ECM New Series) and performed about a third of the pieces at a concert for Soundstreams Canada on Wednesday.

Nobody knows how the men of St. Mary's Abbey in Worcester might have performed this music. The women of Trio Mediaeval (Linn Andrea Fuglseth, Torunn Ostrem Ossum and Berit Opheim Versto, standing in for Anna Maria Friman) treated it as so many sketches for a kind of sacred theatre. The Trio is renowned for the purity of its singing, and that was apparent and impressive from the first moment. But what really made the mass come alive was the group's astute characterization of each part as a dramatic statement.

The opening Gloria was lilting and joyous, the Sanctus was gentle as a lullaby, and the unison plainchant of Agnus Dei was made even more calm and resonant by the tolling of hand-held chimes. The blend of voices was superb, but the differences between them – such as the warmth of Ossum's mezzo-soprano and the slightly untamed shimmer of Versto's folk soprano – also gave the music variety and depth.

In between and around these movements, the Trio performed two recent compositions by Gavin Bryars, commissioned to fill gaps in the standard mass sequence for which there were no pieces in the Worcester fragments. Bryars's skilful Credo and Benedicamus Domino followed rules of counterpoint within reach of mediaeval practice, while making harmonic and melodic moves unknown to the Worcester monks.

The Toronto Consort and its conductor David Fallis joined the Trio for the premiere performance of Breathe, a piece commissioned by Soundstreams from composer James Rolfe and librettist Anna Chatterton, with help from the 12th-century poet and composer Hildegard of Bingen. Between Hildegard's visionary, sensual description of "divine mysteries" and Chatterton's breath-centred evocations of love, the text exuded the same kind of sexy spirituality as the biblical Song of Songs.

Rolfe, with voices and instruments attuned to medieval sonorities (or what we think they were), used drones, interlocking patterns and melodies as simple as plainchant, sometimes running them as live loops against each other. He found a distinct gait and tone for each section of the text. The long-breathed vocal counterpoint of a setting of one part of Chatterton's text actually sounded more ancient than the solo arioso used for a preceding bit by Hildegard, whose later description of flowers and dripping honeycombs pulled the music in a playful direction. The final section featured some of the closest counterpoint in the piece (single lines hovering at the edge of tone clusters), and closed with a recap of the opening setting of the first line: "Love overflows into all things." It's a piece that needs to be heard again, with more attention to getting the words out clearly.

The rest of the show consisted of some excellent, spirited performances of medieval instrumental tunes by the Consort, and by the Trio's mostly unaccompanied Norwegian folk songs, some of them arranged by Fuglseth and Ossum. At once sophisticated and ruggedly plain, impossible to date yet recognizably of our time, these evocative pieces made it pointless to try to distinguish new from old.

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