march 2011

Trio Mediaeval: (from left) Anna Maria Friman, Torunn Ostrem Ossum, Linn Andrea Fuglseth

Classical Perspectives

Trio Medieval: The Worcester Ladymass Project

Founded in Oslo in 1997, indebted to Anonymous 4, among others, but with an approach all their own, Trio Mediaeval-- Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Torunn Østrem Ossum--has developed three distinct strands of repertoire: polyphonic medieval music from England and France, contemporary works and Norwegian medieval ballads and songs. The group's initial phase was inspired by intense periods of work at the Hilliard Summer Festival in England and Germany, and subsequently with Linda Hirst and John Potter.

worcesterOn their fifth ECM New Series album, A Worcester Ladymass, the trio presents a reconstruction of a 13th century votive Mass to the Virgin Mary, based on manuscripts and fragments originating in an English Benedictine Abbey. As Nicky Losseff, the trio's medieval music editor, explains in the liner notes, "complex polyphonic music was important to the monks who lived at the Abbey of St Mary's, Worcester. Polyphony gave life to the otherwise 'plain' song of the liturgy. At Worcester, an unusual number of single leaves and fragments have survived. Through them, we have been left more than 100 songs, in many different musical styles: polyphony to adorn the movements of the Mass; the freely-composed, intricately-interweaving voices of motets; the stricter, declamatory tones of the conductus. All in all, it testifies to a thriving musical community. "

Singing this music today is more than “interpretation,” as Ms. Friman emphasizes: "There is a lot of guesswork and individual intuition in medieval music performances. We feel that performing this music gives us freedom to let our imagination and ideas flow, as though we are creating contemporary music."

Projects such as this come with an inherent challenge that the Trio turns to its advantage, she notes: “It is impossible to know what this music would have sounded like in the middle ages and therefore impossible to recreate a mediaeval vocal sound. We have chosen to use the lack of original information to form our performance in the present."

An interview with Linn Andrea Fuglseth, previewing Trio Mediaeval’s new album, A Worcester Ladymass, and also discussing the group’s 2007 release, Folk Songs.

In the case of the Ladymass, this has sometimes necessitated the bridging of fragments with new music. Noting that the Worcester Mass lacked a Credo and a Benedicamus Domino, the singers invited Gavin Bryars, a supporter of the group since its earliest days, to compose the appropriate settings.

Bryars proposed that his pieces be inserted into the Ladymass in such a way as to "maintain the same ethos, without any sense of incongruity,” despite the fact that his compositions would sound audibly different from the surrounding sections. The old and the new, literally and conceptually, intermingle in the work of this vocal ensemble.

(for further information about Trio Mediaeval, its new album and its catalogue, visit



The Critical Perspective:

Trio Mediaeval’s A Worcester Ladymass: ‘A Glorious Experience’

By Graham Rogers

It has taken the enterprising women of Trio Mediaeval a while to produce a medieval sacred music follow-up to their 2005 hit Stella Maris, but it has been well worth the wait. A Worcester Ladymass is a glorious experience.

The title "Ladymass" refers not to the female singers on this recording, but to the mass's association with the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. In fact, it is extremely unlikely that women would have performed this music originally, written by and for the 13th century Benedictine monks of the Abbey of St Mary's, Worcester; but, as Trio-member Anna Maria Friman points out in her frank and engaging booklet notes, it is impossible to create an authentic mediaeval vocal sound because of the incredibly small amount of historical information about how this music would have sounded in the middle ages. She sees this as a positive thing, providing "the freedom to let our imagination and ideas flow, as though we are creating contemporary music.” Taking this creative initiative to its fullest extent, the Trio has commissioned contemporary composer Gavin Bryars to plug some of the liturgical gaps in the surviving manuscripts with new pieces: a five-minute Credo and a short Benedicamus Domino at the mass' conclusion.

Trio Mediaeval, a fragment of The Worcester Fragments

It is ironic that most of the surviving sacred polyphony from the Middle Ages was discarded in its own time as scrap. Worcester is an especial treasure-trove of manuscript fragments that were cut up and used to bind other things, thus escaping Reformation destruction at the hands of Henry VIII. The fragments that the Trio and academic Nicky Losseff have assembled into this Ladymass contain vibrant examples of different musical styles: formal declamatory tones for the conductus; free-flowing intricately interweaving lines in the motets; and sumptuous polyphony to adorn the mass movements. Bryars' new compositions sit very well alongside the medieval originals, deftly maintaining an incongruity of style without shying away from using modern harmonies and rhythms; and the Trio's alluring performances ensure continuity.

Taken as a whole, this album is an absolute delight. Whether you simply want to wallow in a wave of seductive tones, or sit up and revel in the superbly-rendered polyphonic complexities, Trio Mediaeval ensure that the experience will be a wonderfully enriching one.

Review courtesy the BBC


Refined, Ethereal Singing: Trio Mediaeval's Worcester Ladymass

By Charles T. Downey

We are great admirers of the singing of Trio Mediaeval, having reviewed these three Scandinavian women in concert in 2005 and 2008 and enjoyed their recordings. A Worcester Ladymass, their new disc, returns to their best territory, late medieval polyphony juxtaposed with modern music, and their sound is as pristine as it ever was. This program is centered on some of the pieces of the so-called Worcester Fragments, a partial collection of music, mostly three-part polyphony, sung at Worcester Cathedral. The book was destroyed in the Protestant Reformation, cut up into pieces used to bind other books: the fragments were pieced back together and transcribed by musicologist Luther Dittmer from groupings at Oxford's Bodleian Library, with other shards of the manuscript still in the Worcester Cathedral Library. The music is not unknown on disc, with recordings by the Orlando Consort and at least some of the pieces included on programs by Paul Hillier and Theater of Voices. In 1975 the Nonesuch label issued a highly regarded selection of fragments performed by Accademia Monteverdiana under the direction of British musicologist/professor Denis Stevens, titled, simply, The Worcester Fragments. It remains unissued on CD, but vinyl copies are available from Amazon sellers for as little as four dollars and as much as $44.

Trio Mediaeval, ‘The Little Child’ (‘Det Lisle Banet’) from the group’s 2007 Folk Songs album

What makes this disc of interest, besides the refined, ethereal singing, is that it is a hypothetical reconstruction of a Mass for the feast of the Assumption of Mary, on August 15. (For that reason, the program inevitably recalls the two Ladymass discs by Anonymous 4, An English Ladymass and A Lammas Ladymass--the former is one of my all-time favorite recordings of medieval music.) Worcester Cathedral was maintained by a community of Benedictine monks, until the 16th century when they were driven out by Henry VIII, and the Virgin Mary was the patroness of their monastery, the Abbey of St. Mary's. The concert includes settings of the Proper and other Marian texts, with some plainchants taken from a 13th-century Worcester gradual, plus settings of the Ordinary (the editions used here were prepared by musicologist Nicky Losseff, of the University of York, one of the group's regular collaborators). Faced with the missing parts, a Credo and a Benedicamus Domino, Trio Medieval commissioned new settings by contemporary composer Gavin Bryars (completed in 2008), with whom they have also collaborated before. His compositions, rather than sticking out, merge seamlessly with the older music.

The ECM sound is, as usual, impeccable, captured in the delectable acoustic of the Propstei St. Gerold in Austria, where a number of the label's artists record. The booklet, however, is not particularly helpful on a number of counts, not least because the Latin texts are printed in the booklet without English translation (other listeners might object to this more strongly than I). This seems to reflect the indifference of the musicians to the original Catholic context of this music, a point on which the liner notes, for example, are somewhat evasive. The group's self-avowed mission is to interpret these pieces not as medieval music but as contemporary music--thus the pairing with new music.

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Trio Mediaeval Discography


folkFolk Songs
ECM Records ECM New Series 2003, Released 2007
The Norwegian women's ensemble Trio Mediaeval specializes in early music, but also sings new music, and in this album, marking its tenth anniversary, it branches out to arrangements of folk songs. Folk musician Tone Krohn and group member Linn Andrea Fuglseth made the arrangements, which are magical and lovely. Given the constantly evolving conventions of the folk repertoire, the trio and arrangers are under no constraints to discover and follow an authentic performance practice for the songs, so the arrangements are stylistically and idiomatically varied. They retain the simplicity of a folk song, but the harmonies frequently push the folk style toward a heightened expressivity through the judicious (and highly effective) use of dissonance. One of the most striking characteristics of the arrangements is the textural variety they achieve-- it's frequently hard to believe that only three voices are able to create such a rich contrapuntal web. The group sings with great purity and excellent blend, so the tart harmonies really ring, and their rhythmic incisiveness keeps the music lilting. Birger Mistereggen accompanies them on various percussion instruments, drums, and jew's harp. His contributions are discreet, but add immeasurably to the color and atmospheric variety of the music. ECM's sound is characteristically immaculate, with good resonance. The beautifully performed and produced disc should appeal equally to lovers of folk music, women's voices, and contemporary music for small vocal ensembles.

Trio Mediaeval, ‘Gjendine’s Lullaby’ ‘Gjendines Badnlat’) from Folk Songs

trioStella Maris
ECM Records ECM New Series 1929, Released 2005
Stella Maris juxtaposes and seamlessly blends the old and the new. Chants from the 13th century, most of them from English and French Conductus traditions, are complemented by a new sacred composition commissioned by the Trio. Prior to her Missa Lumen de Lumine, Korean-born Sungji Hong had already written several pieces for Anna Maria Friman, whom she had met while studying at York University. Hong's Missa is a contemporary and explorative setting of the Mass Ordinary which displays a keen awareness of the Trio's distinctive vocal style. "We encountered quite a few rhythmic challenges at first," Anna Maria Friman recalls, "but we felt at once that this piece is really written for our voices." (

soirSoir, Dit-Elle
ECM Records ECM New Series 1869, Released 2004
Trio Mediaeval made a powerful impact in 2001 with their debut album Words of the Angel, their highly distinctive "Scandinavian" vocal sound bringing something fresh to the performance of sacred music. Soir, dit-elle, with equal persuasiveness, reverses the ratio of old to new music... The uniqueness of their vocal blend has encouraged composers Gavin Bryars, Ivan Moody, Andrew Smith and Oleh Harkavyy to write new music for the three women singers. Contemporary works are here interwoven with the Alma redemtoris mass of Leonel Power, the great English composer and theorist who ranks alongside Dunstable as one of the defining forces of 15th century sacred music. The perfect voices rise and blend in the atmosphere, carrying us up to another realm, a place of beauty, peace and meditation.

trioWords Of The Angel (2002)
The 14th century "Tournai" Mass, consisting of a Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite missa est, is the first known complete polyphonic mass to come down to us. Its sections were probably written by different composers, and it's a stunning, fascinating look into early polyphony. This performance is combined with other pieces from the same period, as well as a five-minute piece by contemporary composer Ivan Moody, which--though clearly from six centuries later--blends to make this a gorgeous whole. If you like Anonymous 4, you're in for a real treat here. The three Scandinavian women who make up Trio Mediaeval have astonishingly beautiful voices, with individual timbres that nonetheless mingle seamlessly, whether in simple, chantlike moments or in the high-flying Moody piece. And they sing with feeling, depth, and, well, soul. Formed in Oslo in 1997, the Trio Mediaeval studied intensively with the Hilliard Ensemble and shares the English group's sense of adventurousness and equal interest in early and new music. This is a magnificent disc, not to be missed.

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Click HERE to access an interview with Trio Medieaval’s Linn Andrea Fuglseth.

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