musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Adieu, naturlic leven mijn"

Dir: Ita Hijmans
rec: Jan 15 - 17, 2007, Oosterland (Neth), NH Kerk
Fineline Classical - FL72411 ( 2007) (72'33")

Alexander AGRICOLA (1445/46 - 1506): Mijns herten troest; anon: Adieu, naturlic leven mijn; Ave pulcherrima regina; Benefico solacio; Costi regis filia (De Sancta Katherina); Die werlt leit mi so seer en quelt; Digne colat ecclesia (De Sancta Barbara); Flatu docta spiritali (De Sancta Ursula); Jesu dulcis memoria; Nicolai solennia; O Jesus bant; Puram Christo te dedisti (De Sancta Caecilia); Truren moet ic nacht ende dach; anon/Jacob OBRECHT (1457/58 - before 1505): Och, voer die doot en is geen boet

Nancy Mayer, Christopher Kale, Arnout Lems, voice; Peter De Clerq, Patrick Denecker, Ita Hijmans, recorder; Piet Stryckers, viol

Musicians who focus on music of the Middle Ages or Renaissance don't have an easy job. Most music has never been printed and it needs much time and energy to make music in manuscripts ready to be performed. But usually it is worth it, as many of these manuscripts not only offer splendid music, but also reflect the thinking of the time. Through the music - and in particular the texts - one gets some idea of how people in those days were thinking and how they dealt with the tribulations of everyday life. Often they also give insight in how music was used. The manuscript from which the ensemble Aventure has chosen the 14 pieces on this disc is a good example.

The so-called Koning manuscript is preserved in the Royal Library in Brussels. It is a collection of sacred pieces compiled in the Low Countries around 1500. In addition to the 29 polyphonic works it contains a text for an antiphon, songs without musical notation and spiritual poetry in Latin and Middle Dutch. The music is mostly anonymous, but internationally widely known pieces were used for new texts as well, like Jacob Obrecht's Tandernaken.

The subjects of the texts range from Christmas and the veneration of Mary to songs which lament about the tribulations of daily life, and in particular worldly temptations. Some songs express a longing for death, in order to be with Christ in heaven. The texts reflect the ideas of the 'Devotio Moderna', a movement based on the ideas of the Dutch scientist and, later on, missionary preacher Geert Groote. Its aim was a spiritual renewal focussing on a personal relationship with God. It is this personal tone which is predominant in these songs. As the 'Devotio Moderna' was a movement of commoners this collection is very likely compiled to be sung (and played) at home. This movement was especially popular in the Low Countries and its immediate environment, and some of the songs in the manuscript also appear in sources from the Lower Rhine area.

The ensemble has made a representative choice from the manuscript: the first item, Benefico solacio is a song to "celebrate the Candlemas of Mary", but the second, Truren moet ic nacht ende dach belongs to the category of laments: "Day and night I must lament, and suffer great longing". Flatu docti spiritali item is an example of a song about a saint, in this case Saint Ursula. Later on in the programme we find a song about Saint Caecilia, which doesn't refer to her assumed role in music, as most later compositions in her honour would do, but rather concentrates on her total commitment to spiritual matters: "We owe you a debt of praise, Caecilia, virgin of Christ, for you taught us to arise and leave earthly meanness" (Puram Christo te dedisti). This is a thought which returns time and again in the songs of this manuscript, and is often closely connected to the veneration of the Virgin Mary, like in Mijns herten troest, which says: "I wish to send you eternal salutation, with favour, willingly, I would be received by your mercy in pure love, to give myself to you as prisoner for I am in great longing out of love". The song which gave this disc its title reflects the same spirit: "Farewell, my fleshly life, (...) farewell, false world and your vice, (...) farewell, I am taken from you to serve Mary, that pure maid, with her will I not be confounded".

Some songs specifically deal with death and its inevitability, which was certainly an everyday reality for people of that time: "Ah, I must die, this much is sure, and this I do lament. Death has surprised many; I wait for it at every moment" (Och voer die doot en is gheen boet). How many people didn't die because of the plague, for instance? Geert Groote is just one example: he died 1384 at the age of 44. The longing for a close connection to Jesus is expressed in O Jesus bant: "O Jesus' bonds, o fiery flame, ah, were you planted in my heart, then would my soul be freed from all oppression (...)".

The manuscript also shows how music was used at that time. I already referred to the well-known tune Tandernaken by Jacob Obrecht, which is used here for the song Och, voer die doot en is geen boet. Mijns herten troest is based on a secular song by Alexander Agricola and has been given a sacred text. Other pieces, like Die werlt leit mi se seer and Adieu, naturlic leven have melodies which also appear as instrumental pieces in international songbooks of the time. What makes this collection especially interesting is that most pieces show a much more elaborated popyphony than was usual in late medieval Dutch manuscripts. From this perspective this recording sheds light on a hitherto little-known aspect of music making in the Low Countries.

The performance practice on this disc is in line with what we know about practices in the 15th century. Most pieces are sung by two or three voices, sometimes supported by the viol. In some pieces the vocal performance is interrupted by an instrumental performance of the material with three recorders. Such instrumental performances or arrangements were quite common in those days.

As in the renaissance instruments of different families usually didn't play together I note with satisfaction that viol and recorders never play at the same time. I am also delighted that the Latin texts are pronounced in what is thought to be the Dutch way, which is different from both the Italian and the French pronunciation. The Middle Dutch texts are pronunciated rather well, as far as I can tell, although one can't overhear that Nancy Mayer is not a native Dutch speaker. Sometimes I had the impression the intonation is less than perfect, and in some pieces Ms Mayer's voice sounds a bit stressed as if the top notes give her some problems. Sometimes a little vibrato also creeps in.

These are just minor criticisms of a recording which I rate high because of the quality and the historical importance of the repertoire and the generally good level of performance. To everyone interested in the music of this period in Western history I recommend this disc.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

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