Washington National Cathedral's release Sound from Heaven presents the 14th century Mass of Tournai garbed in a liturgy for Pentecost, filled out with selections with Olivier Messiaen's organ mass for that occasion and his motet O sacrum convivium, the usual-suspect plainchant, and some Conductus from what is only identified as "The Florence Manuscript." While there are several sources given that designation, the one that they probably mean is Florence, Biblioteca Mediceo-Laurenziana, Plut. 29.1, one of three major manuscripts that make up what survives of the Notre Dame Magnus Liber. All of the relevant gospel readings are included, with celebrant Anna Maria Friman reciting on a psalm-tone with plainchant provided by the Girl Choristers of Washington National Cathedral; Quintus Quodlibet, a smaller group, provides the polyphony. The Messiaen organ paraphrases are played on the Washington National Cathedral's famous Skinner instrument -- which contains more than 10,000 pipes -- and some additional passages are added by Carillonneur Edward M. Nassor.
This is a big, big production, and the Messe de Tournai -- the world's oldest polyphonic setting of the mass -- has a long history of being transformed into contexts other than what it represents, and it has well survived a good many of them, nevertheless. It is not big and bad enough to survive this one; this is a sprawling liturgy that seems to have more of a kitchen sink effect than to evoke a "sound from heaven." As with all large assemblages of this kind there are elements that work and others that don't. Friman has a lovely voice, and while at times the polyphony is a little ragged at others, the singing of Quintus Quodlibet is quite inspired. The singing of the Gospel in English is a bit odd, given that the chant, mass, and all other sung elements are in Latin. The sound of the huge Carillon in Washington National Cathedral is always impressive and resounds through the opening of this recording with outstanding presence. There is something else competing with it, though, along with the first several tracks on the disc; an unexplained, unwelcome low-end hum. It may be due to a bad electrical connection, a fan, or an air conditioning unit someone forgot to turn off, but you never get used to it, and once it's gone the listening experience indescribably improves. However, the organ interludes -- while they sound mystical and reverent in their own way, on their own turf -- taken in the context of the delicate chant and Tournai Mass, sound crabby and hostile, like a demon pounding away on the organ during a particularly sacred service. While there is enjoyment to be gained through listening to some of the singing and Carillon on this release, the overall project is just too diffuse to hang together in a way that provides continuous listening enjoyment.