Theseus Game

Vetus abit littera
Messe de Nostre Dame
Theseus Game *

Hilliard Ensemble:
David James (countertenor)
David Gould (countertenor)
Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor)
Steven Harrold (tenor)
Gordon Jones (baritone)

* London Sinfonietta
Martyn Brabbins
Pierre-André Valade

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 6 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The concert’s theme was ‘innovation’. Innovation suggests new and different. Strange sounds may commit an assault upon the ears. Yet, once presented, the innovation may be repeated and copied so that the original sounds less startling. How can the 21st-century hear what was ‘new’ in the 12th or the 14th?

The three-minute “Vetus abit littera” from the late 12th-century is a ‘conductus’ – music with specific religious content yet unattached to a liturgy. This particular piece celebrates the birth of Jesus and future promise. It was probably first sung as choristers processed near Notre Dame while it was being constructed. Each of the 27 short lines of verse is treated as a separate phrase, polyphonically. The four voices begin and end each phrase ‘together’, in either octave or fifth. In between, the voices move independently. Brief moments of piercing dissonance were sung resonantly and with relish – as if anticipating Bach’s baroque trumpet.

The Messe de Nostre Dame is the earliest surviving setting of the liturgy written by one person – a work of intense polyphony for four, sometimes five, voices. It was “not intended to be heard continuously,” writes the American critic Jerome F. Weber. Hence, the Prom programme-makers had a problem – which they ‘solved’ by giving us some 25 minutes of continuous singing. Machaut differentiated the sections of the Mass – but not sufficiently to maintain my interest. The Hilliard Ensemble’s soft-grained style of singing didn’t render my experience any the less soporific. Individual members produced beautiful, controlled sounds that made no challenging demands, the house-style too sweet – suggesting, at worst, an endless, serene mush; I would have responded more wakefully to a reedier, more austere articulation. Do the words ‘Kyrie Eleison’, for example, warrant presentation as marshmallow, however lovingly prepared?

If this was ‘sweet’, Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Theseus Game was ‘sour’. There was innovation in structure, in two respects – each essentially straightforward. Firstly, there was polyphony requiring different tempos – dividing the orchestra, requiring some instrumentalists to play faster than others. Two conductors are necessary. Essentially, the second innovation is less radical. Birtwistle writes concertante solos, to be played against the polyphony of the ‘split’ orchestra.

There was ritual in this – Sir Harrison’s trademark. From time to time, a player would leave ‘one’ orchestra to sit with the ‘other’ one. Similarly, soloists moved from the body of the orchestra to flank the podium, returning to base once their spotlight was over.The theme is that of Theseus in the Labyrinth (represented by the ensemble music, played in blocks and constantly returning to the same musical place – implying “I have been in here before”]. He finds his way out by following Ariadne’s thread weaving through the maze – the continuous melody offered by a living chain of soloists.

I had not heard Theseus Game before. My ears did not always make sense of sounds coming from many different quarters. The solo spots were the most readily identifiable and easiest to accommodate. The ‘blocks’ of sound representing the Labyrinth seemed to represent very fluid constructions – a noisily agitated ‘maze’ of sound, perhaps. Further hearings might draw me further into the music’s diaphanous mysteries. I wondered what Sir Harrison, sitting across the aisle from me, was hearing.

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