musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Songs from the 13th to the 15th century

[I] "Parle qui veut - Moralizing songs of the Middle Ages"
Sollazzo Ensemble
rec: July 17 - 20, 2016, York, National Centre for Early Music
Linn Records - CKD 529 (© 2017) (46'03")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

ANDREA da Firenze (?-c1415): Dal traditor; anon: Hont paur; O pensieri vani; Parle qui veut; Pour che que je ne puis; Va, Fortune; Johannes CICONIA (c1370-1412): Ligiadra donna; GIOVANNI da Firenze (fl 1340-1350): Angnel son biancho; Francesco LANDINI (c1325-1397): Musicha son - Già furon - Ciascun vuol; NICCOLÒ da Perugia (fl 2nd half 14th C): Il megl'è pur tacere; PAOLO da Firenze (c1355-after 1435): Perché vendecta; SOLAGE (fl late 14th C): Le basile; Antonio ZACARA da Teramo (c1350/60-1413/16): Cacciando per gustar - Ai cinci, ai toppi

[II] "En seumeillant - Dreams and visions in the Middle Ages"
Sollazzo Ensemble
rec: March 5 - 9, 2017, Jujurieux (F), Espace culturel C.J. Bonnet
Ambronay - AMY309 (© 2017) (62'34")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: El Cant de la Sibilla; 2 Estampies; Litania mortuorum discordans (arr Anna Danilevskaia); Magdalena degna da laudare; Or sus vous dormez trop; GIOVANNI da Firenze (fl 1340-1350): La bella stella; Johannes Symonis DE HASPRE (?-1428): Puisque je sui fumeux; Jacob DE SENLÈCHE (late 14th C): En ce gracieux tamps; SOLAGE (fl late 14th C): Fumeux fume; Andrea STEFANI (late 14th C): Morte m'a sciolt', Amor; TREBOR (late 14th C): En seumeillant

Perrine Devillers, Yukie Sato, soprano; Vivien Simon, tenor; Anna Danilevskaia, Sophia Danilevskaia, vielle; Vincent Kibildis, harp

In the short time of its existence the Sollazzo Ensemble has developed into one of the most celebrated formations in the field of medieval and early renaissance music. In 2014 it entered the Eeemerging programme, in which each year the most promising European ensembles are selected and offered artistic residencies in Europe, professional training and assistence in the ensembles' promotion through concerts. In 2015 the ensemble won the York Early Music International Young Artists Prize, and was awarded the Friends of York Early Music Festival Prize by the public, as well as the Cambridge Early Music Prize. The two discs reviewed here are the fruit of their successes. The Linn disc is part of the York Early Music Prize, and the Ambronay disc is the pinnacle of its participation in the Eeemerging programme.

I had the pleasure of attending three concerts of the Sollazzo Ensemble in recent years, once as part of the early music season of the Dutch Organisation for Early Music, and its two performances in the 2018 Festival Early Music Utrecht. I was greatly impressed by their performances, and the two present discs confirm my positive assessment of their interpretations. The choice of repertoire is also interesting, and in both recordings the subject of the programme has been worked out consistently.

Most medieval songs are about love, and that subject is not absent in the first dics's programme. However, the focus is on pieces with a moralizing character, as the subtitle says. In the Middle Ages there was much more room for social criticism than in later periods, and that comes clearly to the fore here. The main subject is slander and gossip, as expressed in the opening item, Il megli' è pur tacere, a ballata minima by Niccolò da Perugia. "It is best to be silent. He who speaks too much often errs". The sneakiness of gossip is perfectly expressed here by the way it sung. Some moralizing songs are satirical in character. That goes, for instance, for the second piece, by Giovanni da Firenze. In his ballata Angnel son biancho the text is put into the mouth of a lamb, and the music includes bleating sounds. Sound effects are also present in a special genre, the caccia. Andrea da Firenze's Dal traditor is about a traitor "who, by means of shrewd customs and false guidance presents a kind face". He is later compared to Judas, who betrayed Jesus. The disc also ends with a caccia: the two upper voices open the piece with a description of a hunting party, but are then interrupted by the third voice, quoting the cries at the marketplace. This song is reminiscent of a genre which was popular in the English renaissance.

In addition to Italian pieces we hear some on French texts, for instance the piece which gave the disc its title. Parle qui veut, an anonymous rondeau, in which the protagonist takes the slander in an almost philosophical way: "Say what you will, I would live loyally; it is my true desire and my perfect will. I will devote all my skill to loyalty as long as I live – to her, to whom I am dedicated."

Stylistically there is quite some difference between the Italian and the French pieces. In the latter we often find long legato lines, whereas many of the Italian pieces consist of short phrases and pauses. What they have in common, however, is that the text is given much prominence. It is an interesting thought that in the course of history the balance between text and music shifts continually. In large parts of the renaissance repertoire there is hardly any connection at all, and the seconda prattica tried to 'correct' that. There is certainly a clear relationship between text and music in the repertoire on this disc. A striking example is Pour che que je ne puis, an anonymous ballade in which the protagonist expresses his sadness about his departure from his beloved. "I depart against my will; but while parting from you, in leaving, I leave my heart to you". The two voices consistently cross each other, and the result is a strong harmonic tension, which poignantly expresses the pain of the protagonist. It is perfectly realised here by Yukie Sato and Perrine Devillers. The emphasis of the text also allows the performer to put his stamp on a piece; a performance is much more than reproduction of the notes, it is real interpretation. A good example is the way Vivien Simon, in Le basile, a ballade by Solage, vividly exposes the threat of the basilisk, a creature which figures prominently in medieval bestiaries.

One could consider the latter piece as a bridge to the next disc, which is about "dreams and visions", as its subtitle says. Some pieces included in the programme are about dreams in the literal sense of the word. One of them is En seumeillant, the chanson by Trebor, which gave this disc its title: "As I slept, there came to me a vision, most obscure and difficult to understand". Here dreams and visions are immediately connected. Dreams are one way visions are received. A famous expression of visions comes in El Cant de la Sibilla, which has come down to us from Catalonia. The Sibyls were oracular women which in ancient Greece were believed to possess prophetic powers. The Sibylline writings were given a Christian interpretation since the second century. They were believed to prophesy the coming of Christ, and therefore El Cant de la Sibilla was sung during the Advent period.

Some pieces in the programme are rather well-known, and that goes for Fumeux fume, a rondeau by Solage, and Puisque je sui fumeux, a ballade by Johannes Symonis de Haspre. The exact meaning of the texts is a matter of debate; there is no unanimity to what extent the notion of "smoking" has to be interpreted literally. In his translation of Solage's rondeau Charles Johnston decided "to render all the 'fumous' terms with existing or newly coined English words corresponding to them". Anna Danilevskaia, in her liner-notes, does not take a clear stance here, but the inclusion of these pieces in this programme suggests that she tends to take the term 'fuming' literally, in line with the fact that people in the Middle Ages "already smoked plants from the family of solanaceous weeds for hallucinogenic purposes." Hallucination would perfectly fit into the thread of the programme.

El Cant de la Sibilla is one of the religious items in the programme. There are two others, which both can also be connected to a specific way of experiencing faith. The Letania mortuorum discordans (Discordant Litany of the Dead) belongs to a Milanese oral tradition, which was part of funeral rites. A plainchant melody was extended to polyphony through the addition of a discordant voice. Anna Danilevskaia included an example of this practice by adding such a voice to the chant Memento mei, based on descriptions by the theorist Franchinus Gaffurius. The other piece is much more straightforward: Magdalena, degna da Laudare is part of a large repertoire of laude, sung during the gatherings of brotherhoods. Its inclusion here is justified by the fact that part of the ideals of these laudesi was "the search for a state of ecstasy and spiritual intoxication".

This is one of the relatively simple items, whereas others are highly elaborate. That is one of the contrasts in this programme, despite the thematic similarity. The other contrast is the distance in time: the pieces date from the late 13th to the late 15th century. They are performed with the same technical perfection and fine sense of style by the members of the Sollazzo Ensemble. This second disc is a worthy sequel to the first, with which the ensemble proves that its reputation is fully deserved. The three singers are all excellent, but I would also like to mention the contributions of the instrumentalists. The programme includes two well-known estampies from the Robertsbridge Codex, which are often performed with percussion, but here in a more intimate line-up, without losing any of their rhythmic power.

Lovers of medieval music should not miss these two discs. I am looking forward to the ensemble's next projects.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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