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"Istanpitta – Festive music for the Visconti court, 14th century"

Alla Francesca
Dir: Pierre Hamon

rec: Sept 2002, Auditorium di Pigna (Corsica)
Opus 111 - OP 30325 (64'49")

anon: In pro (istanpitta); Isabella (istanpitta); Lamento di Tristano; Non formo christi (ballata); Prelude - Saltarello; Prelude - Saltarello; Principio di virtu (prelude - istanpitta); Salterello; Tre Fontane (istanpitta); trad (Italy): Prelude – Gliu pecoraru revota revota (salterello)

Birgit Goris, Lucas Guimaraes-Peres, vièle à archet; Benoït Toïgo, recorder; Pierre Hamon, recorders, cornamuse, string drum; Angélique Mauillon, gothic harp; Begoña Olavide, psaltery; Michaël Grébil, cistre, lute; Carlo Rizzo, voice, drums

Very few instrumental pieces from the Middle Ages have come down to us. Apart from the likelihood that some compositions will have been lost, there are other reasons for this circumstance. Firstly, vocal music was held in higher esteem than instrumental music. The human voice was considered the most important 'instrument', not only in the Middle Ages, but well into the 18th century. Hardly any musicians were as famous as the castrati in 18th century opera. And in the early 17th century in Italy the violin and cornet were especially highly valued because of all the instruments they were best able to imitate the human voice.
Another reason is the fact that most instrumentalists were improvising while playing. It is even quite possible that a number of them wasn't able to read music. Usually music was handed down orally.

The music on this disc consists mainly of two forms of instrumental music, the istanpitta and the saltarello. All pieces are of Italian origin dating from the 14th century and come from one manuscript, which is in the British Library.

There is much uncertainty about the precise function of these pieces. If one looks in encyclopedias and books on music history the istanpitta and saltarello are usually referred to as dance music. The writers all quote the main source of knowledge about this music, the treatise De musica by the French theorist Johannes de Grocheo, which dates from around 1300. But in his liner notes, Francis Biggi, doubts this view. In regard to the istanpitta he is even quite specific: "The Istanpitte are chamber compositions, not intended to be danced to." He also makes reference to De Grocheo (calling the istanpitte stantipes): "he refers to the stantipes as a complex instrumental form, made up of a varying number of 'puncta' - that is, melodic sections - repeated twice with different cadences. Grocheo never refers to 'stantipes' as dance music; he insists on their complexity and asserts that they require great concentration from both players and listeners."
Specifically excluding the possibility of the istanpitta being dance music Francis Biggi is less certain about the character of the saltarello or the Lamento di Tristano. He suggests the saltarelli "are instrumental pieces, deriving as it were from dance music, but composed with different ends in view."

It doesn't happen that often that one has the opportunity to listen to a number of pieces of this kind in one sequence. More than any recording I know this one impressively displays their complexity. Their structure is well explained in the booklet, but even so it is very difficult to follow. I suppose it just needs listening more often to understand what this music is all about. That, of course, tells a lot about the quality of the music.

Why were these pieces composed? There is a theory that they have been written and played at the occasion of the marriage of Gian Galeazzo Visconti and Isabella of France in 1360. But since there is no firm evidence of this, the title of this disc is a little too specific.
Whereas the booklet contains a lot of information about the music, it doesn't say anything about the instruments used. They are all listed, but only in French. Most of them are not difficult to translate, but their precise character isn't always clear. Tamburello and tammora are both frame drums. The tambour à corde is a string drum, but what is the difference with the tambour sur cadre?

This recording may give the impression of an scientific discourse on two important forms of medieval instrumental music. But that is not the case, on the contrary. The performance stands out for its liveliness and spontaneity. This is the result of very careful preparation, aimed at "playing together in interactive, improvisatory fashion".
As far as I am concerned, that certainly is paying off. While listening I was that much carried away by the virtuosity of the playing, the variation and the interaction between the players that I hardly paid any attention to the structure of the music.
The technical command of the instruments is impressive. I also liked the combination of instruments. In line with medieval preferences instruments of different families - strings and wind instruments - don't play together, avoiding the multi-colouredness of less 'historically correct' interpretations.

Most pieces are preceded by improvised 'preludes'. I don't see the need for them, in particular since some of them are too long, for instance the one that precedes the Lamento di Tristano. I also think that the addition of a traditional Italian saltarello is a little out of place, considering the difference in style with the other pieces and the fact that it is the only item which is sung.

I warmly recommend this recording. It is a must for lovers of medieval music, but considering the way this repertoire is performed here I wouldn't be surprised if it would appeal to a much wider audience. I certainly hope so.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

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