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Perotin (or Magister Perotinus) was at the forefront of polyphony as it emerged in the twelfth century, together with Leonin (Magister Leoninus). Paul Hillier’s scholarly sleeve notes describe the processes at work in his music far better than a short review could; suffice it to say that the style of some of the organum pieces has influenced many a twentieth century composer, including the minimalist Steve Reich, whose views are quoted in the notes. Perotin is not the only composer represented in the programme – some of the pieces are anonymous, although this does not detract from their musical strength in any way.

In a nutshell, the organum works are founded on plainchant, which is sung as part of the performance. Some voices sing the chant in extremely long note values, so that the progressions of the melody are hard to distinguish. Meanwhile, higher voices dance through a series of rhythmically-charged motifs, overlapping with each other and producing an astonishing alternation of dissonances and consonances, breathtaking to hear. The opening piece, the Christmas motet “Viderunt omnes,” is a particularly fine example of this.

Other works in the programme sound closer to the sound world of Guillaume de Machaut: “Dum signillium” and “Veni Creator spiritus” are two such pieces, the former sung by tenors John Potter and Rogers Covey-Crump whilst the latter adds counter-tenor David James. Another short motet, “Isaias cecinit,” repeats the same material for new verses of text, like a hymn tune with a descant at the end. I believe these three to be the most wonderful in the programme; especially, “Veni Creator” has a timelessness about it, enhanced by magical singing and the strong acoustics of Boxgrove Priory – one can almost imagine being in another century listening to this. Another fine moment is the chant “Beata viscera,” powerfully sung by David James to a wordless drone.

As early music recordings go, this one has much to commend it: masterful singing in a wonderfully atmospheric venue, excellent sound quality, thoughtful programming that sets long beside short and quiet beside loud. It is glorious music from first to last – truly wonderful!

-Mark Swinton,

The Hilliard Ensemble-PÉROTIN (2000)


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