musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Instrumental music from the late 14th to the late 16th century

[I] "Concilium zu Constanz 1414 - 1418" (The Council of Constance)
Les Haulz et les Bas
rec: March 1 - 3, 2018, Berlin-Wannsee, Andreaskirche
Ahalani Records - ar 0059 (© 2018) (70'14")
Liner-notes: D
Cover & track-list

anon: Bektashi Nefes - Audite principes; Chançona Tedescha (III); Chançona Tedescha (IV); Estampie; Sones ces nachares; Tuba gallicalis; Johannes CICONIA (c1370-1412): Caçando un giorno; Doctorum principem; Guillaume DUFAY (c1397-1474): Adieu ces bons vins; Donnés l'aussault; Resveillies vous; Resvelons nous; Pierre FONTAINE (c1380-c1450): J'aime bien celuy; Magister GRIMACE (fl late 14th C): A l'arme; Monk of Salzburg (fl c1400): Das Taghorn; Oswald VON WOLKENSTEIN (c1376-1445): Mein hertz das ist versert; Stand auff maredel; Wach auff mein hort; Wol auff wir wellen slauffen; Antonio ZACARA da Teramo (c1355-c1415): Benchè lontan/Férito Già; Credo cursor;

Gesina Bänfer, shawm, drums; Ian Harrison, shawm, bagpipes; David Yacus, Nathaniel Wood, slide trumpet, buisine; Andrea Piccioni, tambourine, sgnacchere, tabor, qraqueb, castanets; Nora Thiele, percussion

[II] "Di guerra e di pace - Renaissance music for winds and percussion"
La Pifarescha
rec: Nov 2009 & July 2011, Roletto (I), Chiesa della B.V. Maria del Monte Carmelo al Colletto
Glossa - GCD 923901 (© 2016) (54'56")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Giovanni AMBROSIO (c1420-after 1484): Amoroso; anon: Allemande [8]; Basse dance 1 [3]; Die vollen Brüedern [2]; O partita crudele; Symphonia nobili sirene organa/In laudem summi Regis; Jean D'ESTRÉES (?-1576): Les Bouffons [6]; Heinrich ISAAC (c1450-1517): La Morra [1]; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1450-1521): Adieu mes amours [1]; Mille regretz [4]; Scaramella; Paul KUGELMANN (?-1580): Nichts werders ist [5]; MORITZ, Landgrave of Hesse (1572 - 1632): Pastorella; Pavana del povero soldato; Pierre PHALÈSE (c1505-c1575) (ed): Pavana & Gaillarda Ferrareze [7]; Pavana & Gaillarde de la guerre [8]; Ludwig SENFL (c1486-c1543): Im Maien hört man die Hanen kreen; Patientia, muss ich han, wohl kann; Tielman SUSATO (c1510-c1570) (ed): Entrée du fol [4]; Pavane Mille regretz [4]; Jean TABOUROT (1520-1595): Belle qui tiens ma vie [9]; Adrian WILLAERT (c1490-1562): Vecchie letrose

Sources: [1] Ottaviano Petrucci, ed., Harmonice Musice Odhecaton A, 1501; [2] Liederbuch des Johannes Heer von Glarus, c1510 (ms); [3] Pierre Attaingnant, ed., Neuf basses dances, 1530; [4] Tielman Susato, ed., Danserye, 1551; [5] Paul Kugelmann, Etliche teutsche Liedlein, 1558; [6] Jean d'Estrées, Tiers Livre de Danseries, 1559; Pierre Phalèse, ed., [7] Liber Primus Leviorum Carminum, 1571; [8] Premier Livre de Danceries, 1571; [9] Thoinot Arbeau, ed., Orchésographie, 1589

Stefano Vezzani, recorder, pipe and tabor, shawm; Marco Ferrari, recorder, shawm, bagpipes; Mauro Morini, sackbut, slode trumpet, buisine; David Yacus, fiddle, pipe and tabor, percussion; Svetlana Fomina, fiddle; Gabriele Miracle, dulcimer, percussion

A considerable part of the music written during the renaissance and baroque periods was composed for special occasions, such as the birth of a royal or aristocratic heir, weddings, funerals, birth- and namedays, military victories or the signing of a peace treaty. Such occasions not only required music to emphasize their importance, but also to demonstrate the status of the people involved, which was also reflected by the stature of the composers and the musicians they could rely on.

The first disc under review here is an example of an important event, where the various factors came together. The ensemble Les Haulz et les Bas recorded a programme of music which in one way or another can be connected to the Council of Constance, which took place from 1414 to 1418. The main reason this council was called together was the wish to bring to an end the schism in the Catholic Church which manifested itself in the presence of several popes, who claimed to be the only legitimate head of the Church. One of the driving forces was Sigismund of Luxembourg, who had been crowned King of Germany in 1411 and wanted to be crowned by a legitimate Pope. Things did not go very smoothly, but in November 1417 Martin V was elected Pope.

The programme includes music which has come down anonymously, but also pieces by composers who are still well-known. That goes in particular for Guillaume Dufay, who is represented with several pieces. He was a choirboy at the Cathedral of Cambrai at the time, whose Cardinal, Pierre d'Ailly, played a crucial role at the Council. It is generally assumed that Dufay went to the Council in the retinue of the Cardinal. Obviously his compositions included here are from a later date. Oswald von Wolkenstein was also present at the Council: in February 1415 he was included in the retinue of King Sigismund. The liner-notes mention that Wol auf wir wellen slaufen may have been written in Constance. Johannes Ciconia is then an example of a composer who was in no way connected to the Council. He is included because of his links with one of the people involved in the whole process. His motet Doctorum principem is dedicated to his patron, Cardinal Francesco Zabarella, who went to King Sigismund as an envoy of anti-Pope John XXIII. In the latter's service was also, since 1412, Antonio Zachara da Teramo as capellanus et cantor capelle pape.

Obviously a programme like this is highly speculative. In most cases there is no specific connection between the music selected for this recording and what was actually played during the Council or its surrounding events. However, there can be little doubt that music was performed, not only sacred music, but also secular repertoire. We get here a mixture of both, but most of the music is secular in nature. Most pieces are also originally intended for vocal performance, but there is no objection whatsoever to perform them instrumentally. This was common practice at the time, also because hardly any music was specifically written for instruments. The main exception was music for keyboard and for plucked instruments. Otherwise only dances were written for instruments. The Robertsbridge Codex includes several estampies, and here we hear the probably best-known, arranged for wind and percussion by Ian Harrison. The participation of wind ensembles in Constance at the time of the Council is documented, and the importance of wind instruments is directly connected to the presence of many people of high stature.

Very little is known about exactly which instruments were played and how they were played. From that angle the performers have much freedom to find their way in this repertoire. Les Haulz et les Bas is an experienced ensemble which focuses on the music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. I have heard them several times at the Festival Early Music Utrecht, and I was always impressed by their technical skills, as the playing of the trumpets, shawms and other instruments, which have been reconstructed, is very demanding. But they also play with much engagement and enthusiasm; they are great communicators, and that comes off here as well. The traces of cross-over at the end of the Estampie and the inclusion of a piece from the Near East (Bektashi Nefes), which has nothing to do with the Council of Constance, don't diminish my appreciation of this disc. It is just a shame that the liner-notes are only in German and that this disc has been released on a little-known label. Therefore it may not be that easy to purchase it.

It is not surprising that kings and aristocrats had a special liking for wind instruments. Especially trumpets were traditionally associated with royalty, particularly because of their military origin. Wind ensembles were pre-eminently suited to emphasize the power of rulers. The ensemble La Pifarescha put together a programme of music under the general subject of "war and peace". However, not every piece in the programme can be associated with that subject. It should also be added that "war" in music of the renaissance and baroque periods was not always used literally, but sometimes also as a metaphore for the "war of love". The fact that war was a part of life in those times explains why music includes so many references to that. It is notable that these are not always about the horrors of war. As the liner-notes say, "music also succeeded in blurring the boundary lines between celebration and irony. It is difficult to say whether the high-flown titles of many pieces owed more to indulgence or to a mocking attitude towards the armed hordes and the brave condottieri opposing each other."

The title of this disc should also be taken with a grain of salt with regard to the mention of "winds and percussion". The repertoire included here was partly written for voices and partly for instruments which are not specified. The performers decided to play them on wind instruments. For good reasons, I think, because - as we have already noted - wind instruments played an important role in music life, especially in courtly circles. We don't know for sure which instruments were used, and how they were played is also partly a matter of speculation. The music played here was written down and partly printed, but at the time most music was played extempore. Both music and playing techniques were handed down orally from one generation to the next. The liner-notes summarize the problems posed to modern performers. "The sources which exist in the form of original notation and in the treatises leave many questions unanswered for the musicians concerning articulation, accidentals, tempo, rhythms, dynamics and other matters which can have an immediate impact on performance. Moreover, when read and performed today, there is an undeniable problem posed by the ensemble of past musical treatises: writing about the musical 'event' from its practical aspect only makes sense when the music can be heard at the exact moment and in the precise historical context of its creation. All those who, like us, are considering this material from the perspective of the future, are confronted with various challenging issues which are linked to aspects which are still today probably misinterpreted."

From that perspective no performance can claim to be exactly in line with the performance practice at the time. A considerable part is guesswork. The best one can expect is "historically informed" guesswork. The instruments played here are all based on historical specimens, but things like pitch and temperaments are a subject of speculation. The music included here comes from sources across Europe and were written in different times and different regions. It is highly likely that this means that performance practice was also different. For these performances the artists have turned to still existing traditions in the field of folk music as well as traditions in non-European cultures. Fortunately this has not resulted in performances which make music sound like that which we know from such cultures. It is all recognizable as European music. In addition the players have made use of literary and iconographical evidence.

All these efforts have resulted in a highly enjoyable and compelling disc of pieces of different character, which are brilliantly performed and with infectious enthusiasm and energy. A number of pieces are dances, and here the rhythms come off perfectly. In some cases listeners may find it hard to keep their feet still, such as in the Pavane et Gaillarde de la guerre, edited by Pierre Phalèse, or Willaert's Vecchie letrose. The only issue is that in one of the performances of Moritz of Hesse-Kassel's Pastorale, which is performed on recorder and fiddle, very much sounds like a medieval piece, which is rather strange for a composition from the early 17th century.

All in all, this is a very fine disc which is perfectly suited for repeated listening.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

La Pifarescha
Les Haulz et les Bas

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