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CD reviews

Italian Renaissance

[I] Guillaume DUFAY (c1397 - 1474): "L'alta bellezza - Wind music from 15th-century Italian courts"
Alta Bellezza
rec: July 23 - 25, 2018, Stike by Nayland, St Mary's Church
Arcana - A122 ( 2021) (46'03")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Basse danse Avignon (arr Alta Bellezza); Basse danse Triste plaisir (arr Hanna Geisel); La Danse de Cleves (arr Nathaniel Wood); Victimae paschali laudes; Gilles BINCHOIS (c1400-1460): Amours merchi; Dueil angoisseus; Triste plaisir; Guillaume DUFAY: Ce jour de l'an; He, compaignons, resvelons nous; Je me complains pitieusement; L'alta bellezza tua virtute valore; Puisque vous estez campieur; Quel fronte signorille; Resveilles vous et faites chiere lye; Se la face ay pale; Vergene bella; Jacques VIDE (fl 1405-1433): Las, j'ai perdu mon espintel

Hanna Geisel, soprano & alto shawm; Ann Allen, alto shawm; Nathaniel Wood, slide trumpet, proto-trombone, sackbut

[II] "The Florentine Renaissance"
The Orlando Consort
rec: Jan 8 - 9 & Nov 27, 2020, Loughton (Essex), Parish Church of St John the Baptist
Hyperion - CDA68349 ( 2022) (72'37")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] [1430s-1450s: Dufay and Binchois] Guillaume DUFAY (1397-1474): Nuper rosarum flores/Terribilis est locus ist a 4; Nuper almos rosae flores a 1 (attr); Salve flos Tuscae gentis/Vos nunc Etruscae iubeo/Viri mendaces a 4; [Vanne mio core] 3 (after Va t'en mon cueur); Gilles BICNHOIS (c1400-1460): [Vanne mio core] 3 (after Pour prison); Guillaume DUFAY: Mirandas parit haec urbs Florentina a 3
[1460s-1490s: Lorenzo de' Medici, Isaac and Savonarola] anon: Hora mai che fora son' 3; Quando ruguardo el nostro viver rio 3; ?Heinrich ISAAC (c1450-1517): Canto de' profumi 3; Canto dello zibetto 3; O maligno e duro core 3; anon: Ben venga maggio 3; Heinrich ISAAC: Prophetarum maxime a 4; N pi bella di queste (Trionfo delle de) 4; Corri, Fortuna 4; Lasso quel ch'altri fugge 3; Quis dabit capiti meo aquam? a 4; anon: Ora mai sono in et 1; Che fai qui core? 3; Viva, viva in nostro core 3; Heinrich ISAAC: Quis dabit pacem populo timenti? a 4

Matthew Venner, alto; Mark Dobell, Angus Smith, tenor; Donald Greig, baritone

Guillaume Dufay died in 1474. He had commissioned his tombstone, on which he had written how he saw himself: as a composer. Pupils and other composers of a younger generation wrote lamentations on his death. These two facts indicate that with Dufay we have arrived at the Renaissance, in which the individual became more important and was given more attention than before.

During the last stage of his life, when he lived in Cambrai, where he had started his career as a choirboy, he began to collect and organise his oeuvre. Unfortunately, the major manuscripts resulting from his efforts were destroyed during the French Revolution. As a result a part of his oeuvre has been lost, whereas other compositions have been preserved incomplete. Dufay contributed to the main genres of his time: masses, motets and chansons. The latter constitute a little over a third of Dufay's extant oeuvre. It is not always known when they were written, but a considerable number of them were composed during his time at the court of Carlo Malatesta da Rimini. His use of French texts can be explained from the fact that this was the common language of the Italian aristocracy at the time. The main genres are represented: ballade, virelai and rondeau.

The first disc to be reviewed here brings Dufay together with Gilles Binchois. They enjoyed a close friendship which dated from the time they both worked at the Burgundian court. The ensemble Alta Bellezza has selected a number of pieces from the oeuvre of both composers, which are performed instrumentally. That was a common practice at the time; apart from dances, little music was specifically intended for instrumental performance. However, the line-up of the ensemble is a little less common. The word alta in the ensemble's name refers to a combination of loud wind instruments, which was one of the standard instrumental ensembles from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Alta Bellezza comprises two double-reed instruments, the shawm and the bombard, and a slide trumpet or sackbut. Such ensembles played both sacred and secular polyphony and dances.

The programme includes some well-known pieces, such as Vergene bella and Se la face ay pale by Dufay and Triste plaisir by Binchois. If performed as they are here, one gets a somewhat different perspective. Such performances are sometimes part of anthologies, but seldom a whole disc is devoted to the sound of an alta capella. That, and the fact that the playing of the three artists is excellent, makes the short playing time of this disc a bit disappointing. That said, some music lovers may find the sound of these loud instruments a bit too much of a good thing. It is probably advisable not to listen to this disc at a stretch.

The second disc opens with Dufay and Binchois, who were in different ways connected to Florence, to which the programme recorded by The Orlando Consort is devoted. Florence was one of the major political powers in Italy, and - as was so often the case - this went hand in hand with a flourishing of arts and sciences, which were important instruments of representation. The programme spans a period of around eighty years, starting with Dufay's stay in the city, and ending with the execution of Girolamo Savonarola in 1498.

Dufay moved to Italy in 1420. He worked as a singer in the papal choir under Eugene IV, and it was in his retinue that he visited Florence in 1436. In that year the Cathedral was consecrated, and Dufay composed his motet Super rosarum flores for the occasion. The title refers to the Cathedral's name: Santa Maria del Fiore. Patrick Macey, in his liner-notes, writes: "Dufay's motet has sparked discussion about the relation of its dimensions to architectural elements of the new cathedral. The work has a clear formal design with eight segments based on the alternation of high-voice duets with full-voice sections. This progression of duettutti sections creates the effect of increasing speed as the duration of the breve in each statement decreases from six units to four to two, and then broadens out to three in the final section. The proportion of 6:4:2:3 has been the focus of studies that seek to relate the motets temporal dimensions to those of the cathedral - or to its prototype, the Temple of Solomon (...)." However, there is no general agreement on this. It is one of Dufay's best-known pieces, and it is an appropriate start of this recording. It is followed by a chant for the Mass of dedication, which is only found in the cathedral's service books. It is not certain that Dufay is the composer, but it seems quite likely. The two other motets are written at the same time, also for Florence. This section of the programme also includes two chansons, by Dufay and Binchois respectively. The latter was never in Florence, but he was held in high esteem. Piero de' Medici (1416-1469) owned a manuscript which included twelve chansons by Binchois. However, here the two chansons are sung with a sacred text: we have here two examples of the contrafactum practice which was very common in the Renaissance. The two chansons have been turned into laude, with an Italian text and scored for a single voice with accompaniment. Laude were very popular at the time; for the church it was an important instrument to spread and strengthen the faith among those who did not understand Latin. The two contrafacta are from the pen of Feo Belcari, a playwright and author of religious poetry.

The second and largest section of the programme is devoted to music connected to the main feasts in the calender in Florence: carnival, the May festival and the celebrations of the feast of St John the Baptist, the city's patron saint. Carnival was an important part of the calender, as everywhere in Italy. However, due to several disasters, among them an outbreak of the plague in 1478, carnival was cancelled for some years, but restored in the late 1480s. At that time Florence was under the reign of Lorenzo de' Medici, nicknamed Il Magnifico (1449-1492). He had written a number of carnival songs in the 1470s, which he revived when carnival was celebrated again. Several of these are performed here in anonymous settings, which may be from the pen of Heinrich Isaac. He was one of the most famous composers at the time, alongside Josquin Desprez. He entered the service of the Medici dynasty in 1484. He apparently always remained in contact with this powerful family, even after the latter were banished from Florence in 1494. Two years later Isaac entered the service of Emperor Maximilian I. When the Medicis returned to Florence and a member of the family was elected Pope as Leo X, they granted Isaac a pension. Ben venga maggio was written for the May festival; it is an anoymous setting of a text by Angelo Poliziano, a poet who served the Medici family for most of his life.

The pieces connected to the feast of St John the Baptist are certainly from the pen of Isaac, starting with Prophetarum maxime ("Greatest of prophets"). The celebrations also included secular elements, such as a trionfo - a parade of costumed characters on an elaborately decorated wagon pulled by oxen. Isaac's Trionfo delle de with the title N pi bella di queste was written for such an occasion. Corri fortuna was intended for domestic performance; here we get a vocal performance for the first time, as previously it was considered an instrumental piece. Another first performance concerns Lasso quel ch'altri fugge, whose missing bass part has been reconstructed.

When Lorenzo died in 1492, the above-mentioned Poliziano wrote the text which Isaac set to music: Quis dabit capiti meo aquam? - "Who will give my head water, who will give my eyes a fountain of tears, that I may weep by night, that I may weep by day?" Isaac made use of music from his Missa Salva nos based on the chant for the last antiphon of the evening office of Compline, a translation of which reads thus: "Protect us, Lord, in our waking, and guard over us in our sleeping, so that we may keep vigil with Christ, and may we rest in peace." Notable is the third section, which is headed by the statement "tenor laurus tacet" - "the laurel (Lorenzo) is silent". Here the tenor is omitted. The disc also closes with a piece connected to the death of Lorenzo, who is addressed as if he were a saint. It ends with a pray for peace, which is especially meaningful as Lorenzo played a major role as a peacemaker between the Italian states, and soon after his death the country fell victim to war again.

In between we get pieces connected to Girolamo Savonarola, whose power strongly increased after the death of Lorenzo. He urged for religious, social and political reforms and in 1496 he banned carnival festivities. He was a great promoter of the singing of laude and that is why we get three such pieces. Ora mai sono in et is a text by the above-mentioned Feo Belcari, whereas the text of Che fai qui core is by Savonarola himself. These laude were to be sung to the music of carnival songs performed earlier in the programme (Hora mai che fora son and Ben venga maggio respectively). The anonymous text Viva, viva in nostro core was set to another carnival song. The conflict between Savonarola and Pope Alexander VI (Borgia), who had been compared with the Pharao in the third lauda just mentioned, resulted in the former's execution in May 1498.

The reader may have gathered by now that this is a most interesting production. It was a nice idea to paint a musical portrait of one of the main political and artistic centres in 15th-century Italy. This also allows for the performance of pieces that are seldom part of a programme of renaissance music, and to put them into their historical and social context. The fact that several items are recorded here for the first time only emphasizes its importance. It was a particular good idea to combine carnival songs with their spiritual counterparts, demonstrating the wide-spread practice of contrafactum. The singing is excellent, despite the slight vibrato in the lowest voices. The Orlando Consort has recently finished its complete recording of Machaut's oeuvre, which is a major achievement. This disc is another jewel in their crown. It is also going to be one of its last, as the ensemble announced its dissolution in 2023. That is sad news.

Johan van Veen ( 2022)

Relevant links:

Alta Bellezza
The Orlando Consort

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