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"Fortune Obscure - Die Schicksalsballaden des Codex Chantilly" [The fortune ballads from the Codex Chantilly]

Fortuna Canta

rec: Nov 11 - 14, 2016, Lüneburg, Friedenskirche
Conditura Records - CONREC011 (© 2019) (70'30")
Liner-notes: D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover & track-list

anon: Je ne puis avoir plaisir; O bonne, douce Franse; Plus ne put musique; Toute clerté; Un crible - A Dieu vos comant; Ung lion say; BORLET (fl c1397-1409): He, tres doulz roussignol; Baude CORDIER (fl early 15th C): Belle, bonne, sage; Tout par compas; Johannes CUVELIER (CUNELIER) (fl c1372-1387): Se Geneive, Tristan; GRIMACE (2nd half 14th C): Des que buisson; Se Zephirus - Se Jupiter; Johannes Symonis HASPROIS (fl 1378-1428): Ma douce amour; Puis que je sui fumeux; Pierre DES MOLINS (fl mid-14th C): De ce que foul pense; Jaquemin DE SENLECHES (fl 1382-1383): La harpe de mellodie; SOLAGE (late 14th C): Helas, je voy mon cuer; TREBOR (fl c1380-c1400): Passerose de beauté

Stefanie Brijoux, soprano, harp; Katrin Krauß-Brandi, recorder; Ute Faust, recorder, fiddle; Holger Faust-Peters, fiddle, organetto

A large part - probably even the largest part - of secular music throughout history has love (more often than not unhappy love) as its subject. The pieces collected in the Codex Chantilly are no exception. Quite a number of discs have been devoted to this collection, and if one wants to make a selection from this source, how to proceed? The ensemble Fortuna Canta took fate as the subject of its recording, as is expressed in the disc's title: "Obscure Fortune". In classical mythology fate was personified by Fortuna, the goddess of fortune and the personification of luck in Roman religion. It continued to play a role in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, despite its connection to (pagan) religions of the past. Several - though not all - pieces selected for the disc under review specifically refer to fortune or fate. Its fickleness and unpredicability were often symbolised by the image of a wheel: Cicero was the first who mentioned the wheel of fortune (Rota Fortunae).

The Codex Chantilly is one of the most important sources of French secular music of the late Middle Ages. A copyist seems to have put together this collection around 1400 (some pieces may have been added at a later time), probably as a special commission from some nobleman. It includes 110 pieces: 13 motets in Latin and 97 secular works, mostly on French texts. The music spans a period of about half a century, from the mid-14th century (the earliest piece is by Guillaume de Machaut) until around 1400, and may have been intended as an anthology of French music of the time. Around thirty composers are represented in this Codex; a number of pieces don't mention the name of the composer. 61 pieces are only known from this source. Despite the stylistic differences, most of the songs are in what is known as the ars subtilior, among whose main features are rhythmic and notational complexity. This kind of repertoire has strong intellectual traces: the texts often includes puzzles, acrostics, puns and quotations as well as references to parts of life, such as politics and mythology. For scholars and performers of our time, these pieces are often hard to interpret, and it cannot surprise that performances and recordings are often very different in character.

These pieces have no indication with regard to scoring. It is up to the performers to decide whether to use instrument, and if so, which. Performers sometimes also take liberties in their interpretation, as is the case in the present recording. Some performers confine themselves to voices and a few instruments, such as harp and organetto. Others use also fiddles and recorders. That also goes for Fortuna Canta, in which the voice is joined by two fiddles, two recorders, harp and organetto. Obviously, these are not used together. In most of the pieces the voice is supported by the softer instruments, which favours the intelligibility of the text. The disc has a bit of a false start with Borlet's He, tres doulz roussignol, in which the nightingale is imitated. This is the task of the singer, but because of the rather obtrusive sound of the recorder, this does not quite come off. This probably also explains why the singing here lacks some subtlety. Fortunately, that is much better in other pieces.

As I wrote, not all the pieces specifically refer to Fortuna or to fate in general. Solage's Helas, je voy mon cuer does: "Ah Fortune, you make many men hate your rewards, as they find bitterness on your wheel, which makes all good things perish, and changes light-hearted happiness and games into tears". Its unpredictability comes off in some of the images used for Fortuna, such as a brooklet; it is a source of mildness but also a cruel being. The anonymous Je ne puis avois plaisir (which is sometimes attributed to Antonello da Caserta) expresses the dark side of fate: "Alas! my fate is so dire, that I would rather die". However, even in pieces where Fortuna is not specifically mentioned, she often plays a role in the brackground.

I already mentioned the selection of instruments and also referred to the liberties the performers have taken. Two of these are specifically mentioned. In Cordier's Belle, bonne, sage, the performers have inserted a diminution of their own, which means that it has the function of an interlude; I find this decision a little unlucky. In the case of De ce que foul pense by Pierre de Molins, the ballade is extended by a diminution from the Codex Faenza. This is a more satisfying procedure, but here the different line-up leads to a lack of coherence within the piece.

However, these are only minor issues. I am quite happy with the way the selected items have been performed here. Stefanie Brijoux has a very nice voice, which is perfectly suited to this repertoire. She has no problems with the long melismas, which are a hallmark of these songs. Except in the first piece I mentioned above, the line-up is satisfying. Those who have a special interest in this repertoire should add this disc to their collection. It is a shame that the liner-notes and the translations of the songs are only in German. There is no reason why this disc should only be oriented towards the German-speaking market.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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Fortuna Canta

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