Sunday, November 22, 2015

Medieval/modern Sunday special: Responsio

The Coronation of the Virgin, Rheims Cathedral
As a medievalist and liturgy nerd with an active interest in new music, I feel that I am standing somewhere quite near the metaphorical bullseye of the target audience for a contemporary Mass setting inspired by Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame. Canadian composer Peter-Anthony Togni's Responsio embroiders upon, responds to, and joyfully interacts with Machaut's hauntingly lovely setting. The resulting music is sometimes meditative, sometimes exuberant, and always interesting.

Togni's Responsio is set for four singers and a bass clarinet, allowing for interesting opportunities of obligato and counterpoint. The resolutely twentieth-century sound of the clarinet (played with virtuosic skill by Jeff Reilly) makes a piquant contrast with the often chant-like purity of the vocal lines. I was impressed throughout with the precision and range of the performers. Machaut's piece emerges sometimes with piercing purity, as in the Introit. Elsewhere, it recedes, giving the contemporary idiom more space to unfold itself. It need hardly be added that this poses a remarkable challenge for the singers, who are asked to handle vastly different melodies and harmonies with appropriate vocal tone, to say nothing of the often challenging timing. To the Mass setting, Togni has added three short "responses" that function as musical reflections on what has come before.  It is to Togni's credit, as well as to the musicians', that I never felt these contrasts to be unpleasantly jarring. Rather, through all the contrasts, I felt that the piece was suffused with a creative joy, where veneration for source material and delight in experimentation are inseparable. It's an attitude that could aptly be described as thoroughly medieval. 

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