New Listen: Trio Mediaeval’s ‘A Worcester Ladymass’










Artist: Trio Mediaeval
Album: A Worcester Ladymass (2011)

Unlike most of this category’s posts, this new listen was also recently released (March 26). Since blindly purchasing Folk Songs over a year ago, I’ve become quite a fan of Norway’s Trio Mediaeval. Separately, Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and Torunn Østrem Ossum have gentle, splendid voices. Together, they sublimely ebb and flow with a blend only achieved by longtime collaboration.

A Worcester Ladymass is the reconstruction – with the help of musicologist Nicky Losseff – of a Mass to the Virgin Mary for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. This reconstruction is based on fragments collected from Worcester, England’s Abbey of St. Mary’s. The music’s texture ranges from strict monophony (with/out drone) to complex polyphony (for Medieval music). One additional interesting feature of this reconstruction is the inclusion of two works composed specifically for this recording. Two sections of the mass, “Credo” – a biggie – and “Benedicamus Domino,” were missing from original sources and fulfilled by British composer Gavin Bryars. (On an unrelated note, his The Green Ray for alto saxophone and orchestra is quite good – thank you, John Harle.)

This album may not necessarily be for the Medieval purist. (In case you’re wondering, yes, those exist. And they’re quite passionate.) After all, this is a reconstruction based on centuries-old surviving fragments. Also, in lieu of the recitations (i.e., readings) that would have been part of this particular mass, relevant motets, etc. from the Worcester Fragments codex are included. Finally, Bryars’s contributions are not period-specific. They’re stylistically complementary overall, however the harmonies and counterpoint do stray. Given that his two pieces are structurally significant – the “Credo” is the second-longest piece, and the disc closes with “Benedicamus Domino” – the listener can is somewhat pulled out of that thirteenth-century mindset. (Furthermore, the “Credo” is preceded by a monophonic selection.) Anachronistic? Yes. Jarring? Arguable. Unpleasant? Absolutely not. They pull it off here.

As with my review of Rolf Lislevand’s Diminuito, I welcome the contemporary interpretation. As much as many academics insist, we don’t actually know how Medieval music sounded in practice. We have strong ideas and descriptions, but no auditory evidence. There are so many aspects to Medieval and Renaissance performance practice that it’s impossible to attain 100% bulletproof accuracy. When academically- and historically-informed performers take reasoned artistic license, I welcome it. The blend of both Medieval textures and temporally disparate styles make this album both 1) an intriguing reconstruction and 2) a wonderful tour through all things Medieval mass-oriented (Ordinary, Proper, motets, monophony, polyphony, contemporary approaches, etc.). And to top it all off, the singing is world-class! (But, if you’re at all familiar with Trio Mediaeval, you already knew that.) Another spectacular effort.

If you’re new to Medieval music and you’re looking for an academic introduction, this probably isn’t the best place to start. However, if you’re already familiar with Medieval sacred music and you’re looking to breathe new life into your interest, look no further.

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