in: Reviews

November 23, 2009

Trio Medieval Not So Medieval after All

by

. . . of course, that may depend upon your point of view. The Trio Medieval, founded in Oslo in 1997, has been touring the U.S. since 2003; they were last heard here in 2007 with a concert of 13th-century French and Italian music. On Sunday afternoon (Nov. 22), at the Gardner Museum, the group presented Scandinavian traditional songs and anonymous 13th- and 14th-century Latin motets from England, the latter from Berkeley Castle, Select Roll 55. (Sources for the 13th-century motets were not identified, and no words were provided for any of the Latin texts, even though these were the only selections for which the singers sang from notebooks.)

The three Scandinavian sopranos who make up the Trio Medieval comprise scholar Anna Maria Friman; Linn Andrea Fuglseth, who also makes many of their ethereal arrangements; and Torunn Østrem Ossum, who with the widest range supplies the lowest voice when needed — she is also a specialist in early childhood education and assists the group’s work with Norwegian children. Not that they haven’t studied the sources, especially Ph.D. candidate Friman, who researches “modern performance of medieval music.” In a long “Performer’s Note” Friman makes clear that because we have no way of knowing what either the texts or the music sounded like in those centuries, and because “recent musicology” [beginning with Leo Treitler (1981)] has posited that transmission of medieval sacred as well as secular music was an oral tradition, the Trio prefers to “re-contextualize” this music into the 21st century. Their chosen context is subsumed in the atmosphere they create for Scandinavian traditional music, including composed introductions and reprises.

All this is a bit unsettling for the Boston of early music fame, but leaving all that aside nevertheless resulted in a charming afternoon in the Tapestry Room. The women’s voices are incredibly matched in both range and texture, to the point where they often switch parts with each other. Their singing ranges from loud, nasal, calling songs (greetings or sheep) to lullabies and songs of longing with the softest pianissimos that miraculously whispered their resolutions. Sometimes those resolutions deliberately ended on a dissonance and then tuned up with breathtaking daring and effect, and at others (at least once) purposefully did not. The cross-relations in the motets were firmly and expertly sung, with no uncertainty, and in the Berkeley Castle motets the textual phrases were speeded up so that each could be completed in one breath—a boon to intelligibility while making good musical sense. Their elegantly brief ornamentation marked beginnings, middles, and ends of lines—the last being the final swoop up, like an echo, in every line of the calling song.

Except for that one, the character of the other songs was much the same, quietly contemplative. So the singers used dramatic effects to provide both visual and sonic variety. They moved to the back of the room to sing the calling song; on other occasions they dispersed to the sides of the room or used three aisles to surround the audience with their ringing vocal timbres; they used melody chimes in the motets to elaborate those timbres (and, I suppose, to suggest church bells—if so, a bit over the top). They droned tones (one under two voices, or two under one voice) to enhance monophonic melodies. They also choreographed some of their stage movements to enliven the scene of three women in bright colors with mod haircuts, short skirts and high boots, otherwise looking out into the audience as they sang and swayed a bit.

Contemporary music, the third specialty of the Trio Medieval, was not represented in this concert, I’m sorry to say. Sunday’s performance ended the group’s month-long U.S. tour, in the four other cities with the Bang on a Can All Stars. Let’s hope they will come again soon with their third strand in whatever imaginative form it will surely take.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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