This is one of the most fascinating CDs of recent times. British composer Tarik O’Regan (b. 1978) based his composition ‘Scattered Rhymes’ on two fourteenth century texts, one in English (author unknown) and the other excerpted from the ‘Canzoniere’ by Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) . Both texts have earthy and sensual themes as well as divine love, with the emphasis on conflicts between the two.
Although ‘Scattered Rhymes’ (named after Petrarca’s ‘rime sparse’) has strongly pronounced cotemporary polyrhythmic elements with complex layers of melody and harmony building up to tensions between consonance and dissonance suggesting a special kind of modernistic ambiguity, the work is clearly inspired by the magnificent ‘Messe de Nostre Dame’ by Guillaume de Machaut (ca 1400-1474). Six hundred years ago, Machaut created what, for that time, was an incredibly complicated work; one that is considered today to be an extraordinarily fascinating piece of music. We recognise the same kind of rhythmic complexity, with apparently loose, empty fifths being built up into steadily more complicated, often scouring, harmonies and almost grotesque contrasts between soberly formed passages and other moments when the spiritual appears to have overwhelmed the material side. I know of no other 14th century work in which the art of ornamentation is already developed to such an extent and where so much is demanded from the vocalists. Almost all of us know that the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth is considered to be as un-singable as the Gloria from his Missa Solemnis, but four centuries earlier Machaut might well have claimed this honour!
No wonder, then, that O’Regan should have allowed himself to be inspired by Machaut, with the ‘Messe’ serving him well as a model, whilst maintaining a strictly contemporary modern idiom. We are not dealing with a style of composing like that of Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), our contemporary Palestrina, whose music – compared to that of O’Regan’s – proves to be limitless diatonic murmuring. Not to mention John Tavener…
The performances are sublime, even in the smaller pieces like Dufay’s ‘Ave regina celorum’ and Machaut’s and O’Regan’s ‘Douce dame jolie’. Certainly Gavin Bryars’ ‘Super flumina’ (2000) is a most charming miniature. This 65-year old English composer and jazz bassist has written several pieces amongst others for the Hilliard Ensemble, Trio Medieval and the Estonian National Male Choir.
The Orlando Consort (countertenor, two tenors and baritone) sounds almost heavenly, even in the countless extremely difficult passages; the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (eight sopranos, six altos, six tenors and seven basses) under the direction of Paul Hillier, intensely experienced in this type of repertoire, excels in the crystal clear polyphonies needed to support these exquisite works.
This recording is a true gem, both in surround-sound and normal stereo. This is a CD that you really cannot ignore, with so many pleasurable, enriching hours in the prospect.