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MATTEO da Perugia (? - 1418): "Chansons"

Dir: Kees Boeke

rec: June 17 - 19, 2017, Pergine Valdarno (AR), Pieve di San Pietro a Presciano
Et'cetera - KTC 1918 (© 2016) (71'51")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; lyrics - translations: E/D/F/I
Cover & track-list
Modena Codex

anon: Le Firmament (?Johannes CESARIS, fl 1406-1417); Lieta stella; [rondeau without title] (?MARCUS, fl 1408?); MATTEO ad Perugia: Belle sans per; Dame que j'aym; Dame souvrayne; Puisque la mort; Se je me pleing; Se pour loyaulment servir; Trover ne puisa

Stefanie True, soprano; Raphael Höhn, tenora; Kees Boeke, flute, fiddle; Baptiste Romain, fiddle; Claire Piganiol, harp, organetto

The ensemble Tetraktys specialises in Italian and French music of the 14th and 15th centuries. It has released various excellent recordings in the last fifteen years or so. Two of them were devoted to the Codex Chantilly. It is a collection of secular pieces which bear witness to the changes in the musical style of the early 14th century. The main feature was the 'invention' of musica mensurabilis, whose foundation was a new kind of musical notation which measured long and short values. "The crucial novelty therefore was the possibility to assign not only a relatively exact pitch (...) to a single graphical sign. i.e. a note, but also the precise duration (by its shape)" (Laurenz Lütteken, liner-notes to 'Codex Chantilly 1'; Et'cetera KTC 1900). This paved the way for the kind of music we find in the Codex Chantilly.

Despite its French title it was put together in Italy, probably in Florence. The pieces from this source have a French text, which can be explained by the fact that French was a common language among the upper classes in northern Italy. French music was known in other parts of Italy as well. One of the composers who is represented in this codex is Matteo da Perugia, although with only one piece (included in the previously mentioned disc). Perugia is not his last name; it seems to indicate that he was from Perugia, although that is not certain by any means. In fact, we know very little about his life, and that includes the years of his birth and of his death. The first signs of his activities as a musician are from 1402 to 1407, when he was maestro di cappella at Milan Cathedral. He worked at the same cathedral from 1414 to 1416; nothing is known of his whereabouts in the intervening years. It has been suggested that he was in the entourage of Cardinal Pietro Filargo da Candia, who during the Council of Pisa in 1409 was elected antipope, but died the next year.

Despite his activities in the church, only six sacred works have been preserved. The largest part of his extant oeuvre, of which a manuscript preserved in the library of Modena University is the main source, comprises secular songs: four ballades, seven virelais, ten rondeaux and a canon, all on French texts. In addition only two ballate on Italian texts have been preserved. It seems that most texts were written by Matteo himself, and in his liner-notes Kees Boeke notes that the combination of poet and composer in one person was a relic of the past, the time of the troubadours and trouvères.

With the exception of the canon and the ballata all forms are represented in the programme. The virelai seems to be of Arabic origin and may first have been used in northern Africa and Spain. Its basic structure is ABBA. The rondeau could take different forms, but the key aspect is the return of a couple of lines, which usually also open the piece. The music for each stanza follows the overall pattern I–I–II. Se pour loyaulment servir opens with a four-line stanza (I), followed by a stanza of two lines (II), a repeat of the first two lines of (I) and a stanza of four lines and closes with a repetition of the complete opening stanza (I). The ballade comprises three stanzas (ABB), sharing the same metrical and rhyme scheme and ending with the same refrain (C).

A superb example of the latter genre is Se je me pleing, one of the longest pieces in the programme. It is remarkable for several reasons. The first is that - unlike the other pieces - the text is put into the mouth of a woman, who laments the loss of her husband. The refrain sums up her feelings: "I will no longer put trust in Love". The second notable feature is that this piece can be considered a homage to Guillaume de Machaut, and therefore is another token of Matteo's French leanings. It includes a textual and musical quotation from Machaut's ballade De Fortune me doy pleindre. Machaut also composed a ballade with the same title as Matteo's. It is also a virtuosic piece, especially because of the long lines in the vocal part and its wide range. "Matteo is probably the greatest emulator and champion of the French master, as well as the last of all the composers of the Ars Subtilior period to follow in Machaut's footsteps."

The ars subtilior, which can be defined as a musical style characterized by rhythmic and notational complexity, also turns up in two further pieces: the ballade Puisque la mort and the virelay Puisque je suis. Whereas most pieces are about the unreachable dame, the former is - like Se je me pleing - about death, probably that of an important person, like a countess or a queen, as Boeke suggested in his liner-notes. The programme ends with what is the most 'simple' and straightforward piece, the virelay Belle sans per, which Boeke calls 'progressive', as it foreshadows the Burgundian chanson, as we know it from the oeuvre of Dufay and Binchois. It is also rhythmically different from the other items in the programme.

Whereas the Ensemble Perlaro performs comparable repertoire with voices only, Tetraktys includes various instruments. "Assuming that instrumentalists were abundant and active in the performance of the vocal music as represented on this disc, it is likely that they would every now and then during performances slip into some purely instrumental 'jam-session' or rendering of other chansons from the repertoire", Kees Boeke writes. This is the reason that three instrumental pieces are included in the programme. No original instrumental pieces are known from this period, except dances, istanpitte. Instrumentalists mainly improvised and may also have played vocal pieces. The three pieces played here are originally vocal works, which have been preserved textless. In all cases the composer is not known for sure.

For many years the vocal parts in recordings of Tetraktys were sung by Jill Feldman. Her voice was perfectly suited for this kind of repertoire. Her place is taken by the young Canadian soprano Stefanie True. I have heard her several times in the early years of her career, and I was mostly very pleased with her performances. In recent years I was a bit disappointed about her singing, as she had added a considerable amount of vibrato. That made me curious to know, how she would fare in repertoire, which is largely new ground for her. I have to say that I am quite impressed. Her breath control which she especially needs in the pieces with long legato lines, is admirable. She has no problem with the sometimes high notes in her part. There is no trace of the vibrato, which sometimes damages her performances of baroque music. That would be pretty disastrous in this music, where the blending of voice and instruments is so important. In fact, I have come to the conclusion, that her voice is pretty much tailor-made for this repertoire. I therefore hope that she will remain part of Tetraktys, and that we will hear more from her in this early repertoire. Raphael Höhn is a perfect match in Trover ne puis. The instrumentalists play a major role in these performances and they are all excellent, and show their improvisatory skills in the way they play the instrumental pieces.

This disc should made every lover of early renaissance music happy.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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