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CD reviews

"Two Lutes with Grace"

Marc Lewon, lute, gittern; Paul Kieffer, lute; Grace Newcombe, voicea

rec: Feb 20 - 22, 2018, Blaibach (D), Konzerthaus
Naxos - 8.573854 (© 2020) (61'38")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Alexander AGRICOLA (?1445/46-1506): Comme femme desconfortee; Gaudeamus omnes in Domino; Alexander AGRICOLA / Johannes GHISELIN (fl 1491-1507): Duo; anon: Duo; Fortune alas; J'ay pris amours; La Spagna; Mit ganzem willen (arr Marc Lewon)a; Mit ganzem willen wŁnsch ichh dir (arr Crawford Young, Paul Kieffer); So ys emprentid (tenor); John BEDYNGHAM (fl ?1459/60): Fortune alas (arr David Fallows)a; Gilles BINCHOIS (c1400-1460): Comme femme desconforteea; Joan Ambrosio DALZA (fl 1508): Calata a doi lauti; Piva; Saltarello; Walter FRYE (?-1475?): So ys emprentida; Johannes GHISELIN (fl 1491-1507), arr Francesco SPINACINO: Juli amours; Hayne VAN GHIZEGHEM (c1445-1476/97), arr Francesco SPINACINO: De tous biens; Johannes MARTINI (c1430/40-1497): J'ay pris amoursa; ROELKIN (fl late 15th C): De tous bien playne; Francesco SPINACINO (fl 1507): Fortuna desperata; J'ay pris amours; Je ne fay; La Bernardina de Josquin; Johannes TINCTORIS (c1435-1511): Alleluja; Comme femme (arr. Marc Lewon); De tous bien playne; Dung aultre amer; Fecit potentiam; Le souvenir; Tout a par moy

The lute played a crucial role in music life from the Middle Ages until the second half of the 18th century. The large amount of repertoire bears witness of that. Most lute music is written for a single lute (and can often be played on other plucked instruments). Although pieces for two or more lutes were written during the renaissance and in the 17th century, the amount of repertoire is not comparable to that for a single plucked instrument. The present disc is devoted to music for two lutes from the 15th century. However, this should not be taken too literally: during the renaissance period only a few pieces were specifically intended for instrumental performance, and in most cases the choice of instrument(s) is left to the performer(s). That said, according to Marc Lewon, in his notes in the booklet, "the lute duo is arguably the best-documented ensemble combination for 15th-century instrumental music". That justifies the performance of every suitable music on two lutes.

For their programme concept, Marc Lewon and Paul Kieffer were inspired by the Ferrarese lute virtuoso Pietrobono dal Chitarino (c1417-1497), who was considered the greatest lutenist of his time. He performed at Italian courts, together with his 'tenorista'. It is not known who that 'tenorista' was, and it seems that it is also not known what instrument he played. Lewis Lockwood, in his article on Pietrobono in New Grove, states that it was "perhaps a tenor-viol player", but the liner-notes to the Naxos disc, written by Bonnie J. Blackburn, who has written an extensive article on Pietrobono (Journal of the Lute Society of America, 2018), does not specify what instrument he may have played. Could it be another lute? That seems the assumption behind this programme.

It is notable that Pietrobono's name does not appear in the track-list. Unfortunately, he has not left any music. We also don't know exactly what music he performed. However, a contemporary, Aurelio Brandolini Lippi, has lifted a corner of the veil: "What tunes does he play on his strings? What songs with his plectrum? (...) Whatever songs Britain sings, beloved of the Muses, and France, no less favoured by the Muses, the beseeching laments of Spain in her wide lands, and the songs of serious Italy." This is in line with common practice at the time: the largest part of the repertoire of instrumentalists consisted of vocal music. Sometimes such music was intabulated by performers/composers, and one may assume that the more talented performers were able to adapt vocal music to their instruments. Improvisation was an important element of performance practice at the time.

But here we stumble upon another notable feature of Pietrobono's playing. "He did not improvise freely, nor could he, because his tenorista, who provided the tenor or lower parts of the arrangement, kept him rhythmically tied to a regular tempo. Brandolini is very informative about how this is done: the tenorista 'begins various songs with his learned plectrum and plays whole songs in consistent measures ... the other sets out on his journey with left and right hand flying, the fingers of one and the nimble plectrum of the other working in harmony. Throughout the song he goes beyond the prescribed boundaries and he continually invents new rhythms.'

Marc Lewon explains how the repertoire was performed. First of all, it is notable that the lute is played here with a plectrum rather than the fingertips. This was common at the end of the 15th century, and that is the time the repertoire selected for this recording was written. Secondly, the two players take different roles. One of the lutes takes the tenor line, whereas the other - or the smaller gittern - plays the ornamented upper part.

Brandolini not only mentioned that Pietrobono and his tenorista played mostly music of vocal origin, but also that their repertoire was from across Europe. And that is also the case here. It reflects the popularity of some tunes and the way performers and composers treated pre-existing music. J'ay pris amours and De tous biens playne are perfect examples: they have been preserved in many versions, arranged and adapted in various ways. Fortunately, this disc includes quite a number of pieces that have not been recorded before. Apart from vocal pieces and their arrangements, we hear some dance music, such as Saltarello and Piva by Joan Ambrosio Dalza. These are quite exciting, also thanks to the rhythmical drive of the performance.

Marc Lewon and Paul Kieffer are two excellent artists who feel entirely at home in this repertoire and whose ensemble is immaculate. It was a great idea to bring in Grace Newcombe, whose lovely voice is perfectly suited for this repertoire. The title of this disc is a nice wink to her participation. It is also a good characterisation of this recital. The two players and the singer perform with grace indeed.

This is a delightful disc which lovers of renaissance music should not miss. I am sure they will return to it regularly.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Marc Lewon
Grace Newcombe

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