TRIO MEDIAEVAL – A WORCESTER LADYMASS / ECM New Series 2166 player
“A Worcester Ladymass” marks a welcome return for Oslo’s Trio Mediaeval. It’s their first new recording in four years (“Folk Songs” was recorded in February 2007), as well as the first of their discs since “Stella Maris” (2005) to incorporate the medieval sacred music for which their vocal sound seems so eminently suited. As England’s Daily Telegraph observed, “The word ‘mellifluous’ might almost have been coined to describe the distinctively pure, cool sound of Trio Mediaeval’s three female voices. It has an alluring quality all its own, which makes everything they sing – from the earliest polyphony to newly composed pieces which, to some extent, inhabit the same sound-world – wonderfully rewarding to listen to.”
On their fifth ECM New Series album, Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Torunn Østrem Ossum present a reconstruction of a 13th century votive Mass to the Virgin Mary, based on manuscripts and fragments originating in an English Benedictine Abbey. As Nicky Losseff, the trio’s medieval music editor, explains in the liner notes, “complex polyphonic music was important to the monks who lived at the Abbey of St Mary's, Worcester. Polyphony gave life to the otherwise ‘plain’ song of the liturgy. At Worcester, an unusual number of single leaves and fragments have survived. Through them, we have been left more than 100 songs, in many different musical styles: polyphony to adorn the movements of the Mass; the freely-composed, intricately-interweaving voices of motets; the stricter, declamatory tones of the conductus. All in all, it testifies to a thriving musical community. “
Singing this music today is more than ‘interpretation’, as Anna Maria Friman emphasizes: “There is a lot of guesswork and individual intuition in medieval music performances. We feel that performing this music gives us freedom to let our imagination and ideas flow, as though we are creating contemporary music.” The trio lays no claim to historical “authenticity” here: “It is impossible to know what this music would have sounded like in the middle ages and therefore impossible to recreate a mediaeval vocal sound.” This can be a creative bonus: “We have chosen to use the lack of original information to form our performance in the present.” In the case of the “Ladymass”, this has sometimes necessitated the bridging of fragments with new music. Noting that the Worcester Mass lacked a Credo and a Benedicamus Domino, the singers invited Gavin Bryars, a supporter of the group since its earliest days, to compose the appropriate settings. Bryars proposed that his pieces be inserted into the “Ladymass” in such a way as to “maintain the same ethos, without any sense of incongruity”, despite the fact that his compositions would sound audibly different from the surrounding sections. The old and the new, literally and conceptually, intermingle in the work of this vocal ensemble.
Founded in 1997, Trio Mediaeval developed its unique repertory during intense periods of work at the Hilliard Summer Festivals in England and Germany between 1998 and 2000, and subsequently with Linda Hirst and John Potter. "Singing doesn't get more unnervingly beautiful," wrote Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle, who declared their San Francisco debut "among the musical highlights of the year." He added, "To hear the group's note-perfect counterpoint is to be astonished at what the human voice is capable of."
“These three women have astonishingly beautiful voices,” Robert Levine wrote in American journal Stereophile, “with individual timbres that nonetheless mingle seamlessly... Trio Mediaeval sings with feeling, depth, and — dare I say it? — soul”. Such sentiments were echoed also throughout Europe. "A most impressive new group,” said Britain’s Early Music Review: “Their clear and unforced voices, with superb control of intonation and blend of tone, combine with an obvious musical intelligence, as evidenced by their ability to shape a musical line and give structure to a piece. Others have tried to reinterpret the medieval repertoire for soprano voices, but none as successfully as this young group."
The trio’s albums on ECM Records have featured performances of a diverse repertoire. “Words of the Angel”, recorded in 1999, included the Messe de Tournai, 14th century polyphony, and Ivan Moody’s title piece. “Soir, dit-elle” (recorded 2003) included Leonel Power's Missa Alma Redemptoris Mater alongside works by Gavin Bryars, Andrew Smith and Ivan Moody. The trio's third album, “Stella Maris” (2005) featured 12th and 13th-century music from England and France as well as the world premiere recording of “Missa Lumen de Lumine” by Korean composer Sungji Hong. “Folk Songs” (2007), was an intimate collection of Norwegian folk songs with traditional percussion played by Birger Mistereggen. The album received a Grammy nomination as "Best Chamber Music Performance".
In the interim since “Folk Songs”, the singers have guested on other ECM recordings. Anna Friman and Linn Andrea Fuglseth both appear on Rolf Lislevand’s “Diminuito”. Friman also contributes to Arve Henriksen’s “Cartography”, a recording that, furthermore, incorporates the sampled voices of the Trio Mediaeval.