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CD reviews






Vocal & instrumental music from the Middle Ages

[I] "Ahi! Amours - Songs and instruments of the Middle Ages"
Enea Sorini, voice, santur, bells, tamburello, naqqara, riqq, darf, carcabes; Patrizia Bovi, Mauro Borgioni, voice; François Lazarevitch, double flute, bagpipe; Giordano Ceccotti, symphonia, fiddle, rebec; Katerina Ghannudi, harp; Michal Gondko, lute; Peppe Frana, oud, gittern, citole; Corina Marti, clavicembalum; Luca Della Casa, Catalina Vicens, portative organ
rec: March - Oct 2019, Allschwill (CH), Fano (IT), Spello (IT)
NovAntiqua - NA76 (60'18")
Liner-notes: E; no lyrics
Cover & track-list
Spotify

anon: Ave donna santissima; Como a virgen pesa; Manfredina e Rotta; Per tropo fede; Stella splendens; Tanto son da groriosa; Conon DE BÉTHUNE (c1150-c1220): Ahi! Amours; Johannes CICONIA (1370-1412): Gli atti con dancar; Guillaume DUFAY (1397-1474): Vergine bella; GHERARDELLO DA FIRENZE (c1320-c1362): Per non far lieto; JACOPO DA BOLOGNA (fl 1339-1360): Fenice fu'; Francesco LANDINI (c1335-1397): Ecco la primavera; Vaga fanciulla; MAGISTER GULIELMUS (14th C): Mille merze; MONIOT D'ARRAS (fl 1213-1239): Ce fut en may; NICCOLÒ DA PERUGIA (14th C): La donna mia; PETRUS BLESENSIS (c1135-c1204): Vite perdite;

[II] "Palamento - Instrumental pieces from the London Manuscript"
Ensemble Palamento
rec: Jan 2019, Genua, Zerodieci Studio
NovAntiqua - NA58 (53'34")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list
Spotify

anon: Belicha; Chominciamento di gioia; Ghaetta; In pro; Isabella; La Manfredina - Rotta della Manfredina; Lamento di Tristano - La Rotta; Palamento; Principio di virtù; Saltarello (II); Saltarello (III); Saltarello (IV); Salterello (I); Tre fontane; Trotto

Clara Fanticini, vielle; Francesco Gibellini, citole, portative organ; Flavio Spotti, percussion

Recordings of medieval music usually consist almost exclusively of vocal pieces. That is easy to understand: very little independent instrumental pieces have been preserved. That does not indicate that no instrumental music was played: it was either improvised or handed over orally. The two discs under review here are different in that the first comprises almost only vocal items - only two pieces are performed instrumentally - and the second is entirely dcevoted to instrumental music. On the other hand, in the former recording instruments play an important role, and the booklet includes information about the many different instruments that are involved. If one looks at the list of performers, the variety of instruments is notable. It confirms that instruments did play an important role in the Middle Ages.

What we call Middle Ages is hard to define. As far as music history is concerned, there is general agreement that they end somewhere in the 15th century, when the Renaissance begins. The earliest repertoire that has been preserved is liturgical music, today known as 'Gregorian', 'Old Roman' and 'Ambrosian' respectively. It is often impossible to date liturgical chant with any certainty. What is clear, though, is that medieval music spans a wide period, and this explains the differences in character. This is reflected by the first disc, which is a kind of survey of what was written and performed from the mid-12th to the mid-15th century. The first item is the oldest: Ahi! Amours is a chanson de croisade by the French trouvère Conon de Béthune. The latest piece is Vergine bella by Guillaume Dufay. In between are specimens of various genres. Several of them are connected to the veneration of the Virgin Mary, which became very popular in the course of the Middle Ages. That is the case, for instance, with two of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which were written at the court of Alfonso el Sabio, who is often incorrectly mentioned as the composer of those songs. Other examples are Stella splendens from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat and Ave donna santissima. The latter is taken from the Laudario di Cortona, one of the main collections of laude, extra-liturgical spiritual songs sung during gatherings of brotherhoods and at processions.

One of the features of medieval music is that there is no watershed between the sacred and the secular. It is not always easy to decide whether a love song is about a particular lady or about the Virgin Mary. That is the reason specimens of both sacred and secular love are represented in one and the same programme. A substantial part of the programme is devoted to music from 14th-century Italy, known as the Trecento. The names of some of its most famous composers are included, such as Francesco Landini, Jacopo da Bologna and Johannes Ciconia.

As I already mentioned, instruments play an important role in the programme. Enea Sorini either accompanies himself or is accompanied by some of his colleagues from the world of medieval music. They use a wide variety of instruments, whose character is shortly described in the booklet. Among them are string instruments (fiddle, rebec), a double flute, a bagpipe, several plucked instruments (lute, gittern, citole) and various keyboard instruments (clavisimbalum, portative organ). Also included are a symphonia - whose strings are bowed through a keyboard with tangents - and a variety of percussion instruments. Some of the latter have their origin in the Near East, but may have been played in the West (although that is probably a matter of debate). In two items Sorini is joined by another singer.

The variety of the programme may be a plus or a minus, depending on one's preferences. In general I prefer recordings with a clearly defined subject and a strong coherence between the items that are selected. However, I have very much enjoyed this disc, which includes some well-known pieces but also some lesser-known stuff. Enea Sorini is a singer I had heard before and appreciated. That is the case here as well: he intelligently adapts his way of singing to the character of the music, and he convinces in the way he accompanies himself or is accompanied by others. His colleagues are all specialists on their respective instruments. I think that any lover of medieval music may enjoy this disc. It is also a pretty ideal survey of the repertoire and may well be used as an introduction to the music of the Middle Ages, also because of the instruments involved.

As far as the production is concerned: in the booklet we find a QR-code which can be scanned in order to download the digital files and the translations of the lyrics. I have done so: I got the digital files, but no translations.

The second disc is different in that here we get only instrumental music, and a more modest selection of instruments: vielle, citole, portative organ and percussion (frame drums with and without rattles, military drum). However, it is probably the first recording of the complete London manuscript, which is preserved at the British Library in London. It comprises fifteen instrumental pieces of different types.

All pieces consist of partes (musical melodies), which have either an open or a close end. Eight of the fifteen pieces are so-called istampittas, which are derived from the French estampie. All partes are repeated twice, and then followed by another one. Four pieces are saltarellos, dances in triple metre, and a trotto. The last two pieces are a pair: a in slow tempo, followed by a rotta in a quick tempo. There has been much debate about the titles of these dances, but in most cases it is impossible to be sure what they refer to.

Some pieces from this manuscript are well-known as they are often included in programmes of early music ensembles. They are performed in very different ways, especially due to differences between the instruments used. Quite often they are played with loud wind instruments and percussion, and if one has such performances in one's memory, one may need time to get used to what is on offer here. The use of relatively soft instruments does make these pieces sound very different, more intimate, as it were, probably reflecting performances in domestic surroundings. Therefore this disc is a real alternative to other recordings. Moreover, the fact that this disc comprises the entire manuscript lends it a documentary character. The playing of the three performers is of the highest order. This disc is a substantial addition to any collection of medieval music.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Enea Sorini
Ensemble Palamento


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