Rhinegold

Adrian Horsewood

Praised For Good Conduct

10:00, 8th August 2016

Adrian Horsewood learns about the musical fruits brought to life by a recently concluded research project

The Grade I-listed, deconsecrated 12th-century church of St Margaret’s Walmgate in York is not only home to the National Centre for Early Music but also serves as a superb recording venue; given its age, it seems highly appropriate that on the bitingly cold April day I stop by it should be acting as an aural substitute – and a fine one, at that – for a French Gothic cathedral.

The performers – tenors Rogers Covey-Crump, Christopher O’Gorman and John Potter – are in full flow as I arrive, in the middle of tackling the remarkable ‘Fas et nefas’, the text of which is a stern moralistic warning about choosing one’s path in life, treading carefully among the snares of the world. The three voices seem never to be at rest: the instant one line of music comes to rest, the other two have surged onwards, until they all arrive triumphantly at the final cadence. It’s a thrilling sound, one quite unlike any I’d heard before – and with good reason, as I soon had explained to me.

Those familiar with the history of polyphony will probably be able to bring to mind such names as Léonin and Pérotin, and perhaps the genres of motet and organum, which can be described as the earliest forms of polyphony. However, lurking in the shadows is a cousin to these, the conductus (from the Latin ‘conducere’, to lead or escort) which ­– although developed concurrently and as highly thought-of by contemporary theorists – has suffered somewhat from a lack of recognition and academic interest by comparison.

What distinguishes the conductus from its more famous relations is that while exemplars of organum and motet use as their starting points pre-existing material – the former was based solely on plainchant, the latter sometimes incorporated texts in the vernacular – the conductus is newly composed both textually and musically; thus, the repertoire is both immense and highly inventive, with subject matters including the humdrum of everyday life in medieval Europe and polemics against lazy and corrupt clergy, as well as para-liturgical saintly devotions. Furthermore, while the names of many composers of motets and organa have come down to us, we know almost no names of those who wrote conductus.

‘The conductus has always seemed like the poor relation in the history of music between the 12th and the 14th centuries,’ explains Mark Everist, professsor of music at the University of Southampton and principal investigator on the Cantum Pulcriorem Invenire (CPI) research project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The aim of the project was to re-evaluate both the poetry and the music of the conductus and create a detailed, up-to-date catalogue of the surviving repertory (available to view at catalogue.conductus.ac.uk) – over 800 poems, 675 of which are set to music.

One of the core objectives of CPI was the question of rhythm and metre: the music is notated in neumes, but although it has long been acknowledged that untexted melismatic sections in Notre Dame polyphony were fully governed by the rules of six rhythmic modes, before CPI no-one had proposed a satisfactory solution for the treatment of texted sections, which resisted efforts either to fit according to natural word-stresses or to conform to the modal rhythmic rules – and, in doing so, had perhaps contributed to the lesser appreciation of the conductus.

Over the five years of the project and through many hours of rehearsals, workshops and concerts, the three singers and the research team have experimented with all conceivable styles of delivery. What they settled on as an approach ‘rejects a priori rhythmic systems that are inappropriate or anachronistic, and that places the poetry at the centre of the performance’s stage’, according to Everist.

But don’t let the enormous amount of research and brain-power that has gone into producing the three CDs in the Conductus series put you off listening to the music on its own terms. The performances are exemplary, and the three singers could not have been better chosen: each has a distinctive voice with its own qualities – once you know which belongs to which tenor, you won’t mix them up – but when they sing together or in pairs the whole is immediately greater than the sum of its parts. Their affinity for the repertoire, honed over the course of CPI, is clear to hear, and they know expertly how to pace each piece according to its style and tone – no easy feat, when some are over in little more than a minute and others last well over ten minutes.

Lending their ears to the singers’ efforts are Everist and producer Jeremy Summerly: with only three performers involved, the tiniest detail is important and much time is given over to determining the ideal microphone placements, as well as finalising matters of phrasing and sorting out niceties in the transcriptions.

This process of refinement – and, with it, a sense of continual intellectual curiosity – carries on all through the sessions, even though it’s the final day of recording for the final disc in the series; there’s a definite sense from all involved of getting closer to the ‘right’ answer to the various issues through repeated takes, rather than taking a collective foot off the gas towards the end of the day.

Indeed, the transcription of ‘Fas et nefas’ actually only arrived at St Margaret’s via e-mail part-way through the day (sent by one of the research assistants who has been working on it all day), and even though the singers run through the piece several times before everyone’s happy, Everist reckons that from manuscript to transcription to recorded took a shade under five hours.

During a tea break, Summerly remarks that the conductus repertoire makes for ‘sophisticated listening, even for those of us for whom this is a fairly “normal” and familiar sound-world’ (I’m glad it’s not just me); someone else ruefully adds that this means that conductus isn’t the easiest of sells when it comes to promoters and venues overseas…

That the recording side of CPI was taken on by Hyperion should come as no surprise: the label has long had a reputation for supporting unusual musical undertakings that bigger labels would have sniffed at – thanks to the generous nature and foresightedness of both founder Ted Perry and his son Simon, the current company director – and is home to other such ambitious medieval projects as the Orlando Consort’s ongoing Machaut series and almost all of Gothic Voices’ historic output. With the release of the third CD the Conductus series was, sadly, over all too soon, but the discs are a striking reminder of how much has been learnt and clarified about this shadowy repertoire.

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