The Hilliard Ensemble disbanded in 2014, but recordings continue to trickle out to the delight of the group's fans. This one, made in the Netherlands in October of that year, must be among the last ones. It features a setting, written for the group in 2008 by composer John Casken, of the mysterious medieval English poem The Dream of the Rood. A rood is a cross on a large beam or screen (the word "rod" is related). The poem not only relates the narrator's dream of talking to the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified but also (you may want to sit down for this) the dreams of the wood in the cross itself. Casken adapts the text and puts it into modern English, but the outlines of the original poem are fully visible. The opening four works on the album, one of the vast Pérotin works known by the name organum plus three smaller anonymous works, announce his stylistic intentions: Casken writes in a rugged idiom that might be called neo-medieval, even more so than the other contemporary works written for the Hilliard Ensemble. Tonally the work is more dissonant than Pérotin (Stravinsky is another reference point), but its references to medieval sacred music are clear, and they combine with the wild text to produce something really piquant. Sample the "Motet of Sacrifice," one of those sections in which the wood itself speaks, and speaks perhaps in erotic terms, depending on your perspective. Essential for Hilliard devotees, and if you read The Dream of the Rood in an Old English class, you may well find your memories enhanced by Casken's craggy work.
John Casken: The Dream of the Rood Review
by James Manheim