Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Engaging and Peculiar Polyphony on DVD

Bloggers here have never been shy about talking about niche interests, but this is a niche of a niche. So prepare to move on unless you are like me, dangerously attracted to wiling away evenings glued to videos of singers rendering 15th century polyphonic music in small chapels around the world. But I still think I would be irresponsible not to speak of how completely marvelous is this DVD I just watched: Lagrime San Pietro by Orlando di Lasso, as sung by Hilliard Ensemble with the Consort of Musicke.

This Lagrime setting occupies an unusual spot in the repertoire. It is a set of spiritual madrigals for seven voices. It is not liturgical music. These are songs that set poetry that tells the story of Peter's suffering after having rejected Christ. Di Lasso wrote them only weeks before he died. He dedicated the Lagrime to Pope Clement VIII.

To perform them in any setting requires nothing short of a total mastery, and this group of singers does a fantastic job of it. The entire performance is set within the framework of a little drama, with Peter going about his daily tasks and continuing to be haunted by the singers, until he finally returns to the chapel at the end. It's a bit strange in some ways. And yet I really liked this approach because, even for people who love Renaissance polyphony, these pieces can be a bit abstract to listen to with no other context. In this DVD setting, however, I found myself completely entranced by every note. It's a marvelous way to get to know these masterpieces.

On the same DVD is a complete performance of Johannes Ockeghem's Requiem Mass. This one is sung entirely by the Hilliard Ensemble, inside a small church in Bologna, Italy, with choreography by a dance troup. So here again, we don't observe liturgy taking place except in the most abstract sense, but it helps us hear the music in a different way. The pacing of the pieces are as if no time passage is taking place at all. One marvels at the perfect intonation and the way the singers, without a director or anyone giving entrances, beats, or cutoffs, are able to sound so fully unified. Even the choreography was good, and I don't really go for the whole modern dance thing.

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