This review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.
Peter-Anthony Togni’s Responsio is sub-titled “A contemporary response to Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame” and that is exactly what it is. It weaves sections of Machaut’s 14th century mass with sections designated “Response one”, “response two” etc. which are a kind of commentary on Machaut’s music. What’s really interesting though is the way Togni arranges the source material. It’s scored for soprano, mezzo, two tenors and bass clarinet. The use of high voices seems to emphasise the originality of Machaud’s music, which must have sounded pretty radical to its original audience, and facilitates him somewhat twisting and shaping the vocal line to bring out some fairly weird rhythms and harmonies. So unmediaeval did some of these textures sound that I went off in search of the source material. There’s no doubt that Togni has arranged to bring out the strangeness but it is very much there in Machaut’s original score. Then alongside the vocals there is the bass clarinet which, part scored, part improvised provides a rather compelling, even disturbing commentary in a more obviously contemporary vein. The Gloria and the Hosanna sections in particular juxtapose the vocals, already making the familiar words of the mass seem strange, with an insinuating clarinet line in ways that are almost physically jarring. It is a piece of great originality; beautiful, thought provoking and even weird, and quite fascinating.
The performance is one of great commitment. The singers; Suzie LeBlanc, Andrea Ludwig, Charles Daniels and John Potter, all have both early music and contemporary experience and they blend beautifully. Jeff Reilly plays bass clarinet and provides a range of conventional and unconventional sounds that really work. It made me curious about how much was improvised, a lot I fancy, and how much not. Whatever the mix there’s no denying the centrality of his contribution.
The recording, made in St. Bernard Church in Nova Scotia, sounds as one would expect a recording made in a large Gothic church to sound. It’s very resonant which suits the music and seems to enhance the slightly otherwordly qualities of it. ATMA Classique are to be congratulated on such a fine presentation of a really interesting contemporary Canadian work.