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"Le chant de leschiquier - Binchois & Dufay songs in the Buxheim Codex"

Tasto Solo

rec: August 2014, Longchaumois (Jura), Église Saint-Jean Baptiste
Passacaille - 1012 (© 2015) (56'18")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Buxheim Codex

anon: Ein vrouleen [2]; Modocomo [1]; Repeticio [1]; Johannes BEDYNGHAM (fl c1450-1460): O rosa bella [1]; Gilles BINCHOIS (c1400-1460): Dueil angoisseus; Esclaphe [1]; Je loe amours; Jeloymors [1]; Bartolomeo BRUOLO (BROLLO) (fl c142-1435): Entrepris suis [1]; Johannes CICONIA (c1370-1412): Ligiadra donna; Guillaume DUFAY (1397-1474): Par le regard [1]; Portugaler [1]; Se la phase pale [1]; John DUNSTAPLE (c1390-1453): Puisque m'amour [1]

[1] Buxheimer Orgelbuch; [2] Lochamer Liederbuch

Barbara Zanichelli, soprano; Pau Marcos, fiddle; Angélique Mauillon, Reinhild Waldek, harp; David Catalunya, hammered clavisimbalum; Guillermo Pérez, plectrum clavisimbalum, organetto

Before the 17th century hardly any music was specifically written for instruments. The corpus of genuine instrumental music consists almost exclusively of dance music. Music without a text was seldom scored for a particular instrument. One of the main sources of instrumental music of the renaissance is the Buxheimer Orgelbuch. This could suggest that the pieces included in this collection were exclusively intended for the organ. But although there is a "P" below the music indicating the use of the pedalboard they can be played on various kinds of instruments or consorts of instruments. In this respect the English title, Buxheim Codex, is more accurate.

This collection shows what kind of music instrumentalists of the renaissance used to play. It comprises some original pieces for instrumental performance, such as dances and preludes, and instrumental arrangements (intabulations) of vocal works: chansons, songs and sacred music. The name of Buxheim refers to the village in Bavaria where the manuscript was preserved until it was included in the Bavarian State Library in Munich in 1883. The largest part was copied around 1460 and in the next about ten years further pieces were added. What exactly was the reason for putting it together is not known. David Fallows, in his liner-notes, rejects the suggestion that it was compiled for the Bavarian court in Munich; it could have been intended for private use.

The content of this book gives some idea of which music was particularly popular at the time. Only part of the pieces can be connected to a composer; it is notable that over half of the datable pieces were more than 30 years old when they were included in the Codex and that those which are most often intabulated are among the oldest. One piece, the anonymous Une foys avant que morir, is included in nine different intabulations. Fallows points out that it is surprising that of all the composers of the time Gilles Binchois is best represented, even better than Guillaume Dufay. It shows once again the difference in status of a composer between his own time and ours, something we know also from later periods in music history. "In general we think of Dufay as the most valued composer in the forty years leading up to 1460: he is by far the most prolific in terms of what survives; (...) but most particularly his music shows perhaps the greatest variety and range of moods among all composers of the 15th century. On the other hand, there are plenty of indications elsewhere that Binchois was then far more valued then (sic) than he is today." That also comes to the fore in the fact that Binchois, who spent all his life in the Low Countries, is better represented in manuscripts from southern Europe than Dufay who worked there most of his career.

The ensemble Tasto Solo focuses on the music for keyboard of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. To that end it makes use of reconstructions of two instruments which played an important role in those times: the organetto and the leschiquier. The identity of the latter instrument is not entirely clear. The earliest known reference to an instrument with this name dates from 1361 and is found in England. In the late 14th century Guillaume de Machaut mentions it in one of his poems. The instrument disseminated across large parts of Europe, first France and Aragon, and later also Germany and Castile and other parts of the continent. In his liner-notes David Catalunya writes that "the name of this instrument derives either from its square shape, or from the visual similarity between the keyboard's alternation of black and white keys and a chessboard." The main source of our knowledge of strung keyboard instruments of the renaissance is the famous treatise by Arnaut of Zwolle which dates from the 1430s or 1440s. He makes a distinction between the clavisimbalum (wing-shaped) and the clavichordium (square-shaped) and four different models of action, including plectrum, tangent and hammer mechanisms. "Arnaut also explains that there are two possible ways of building a dulcimer: one is to be played in the "rustic fashion", in which the performer has to hold the hammer with his hands, and the other in a more sophisticated manner, by providing the instrument with a keyboard." Plectra were used for lutes and psalteries. In the present recording the clavisimbalum is played in two different ways: Catalunya plays it with hammers, Guillermo Pérez with plectrum.

The two main composers represented here are Dufay and Binchois. The programme is extended with pieces by two composers of a previous generation, "the two great precursors of the so-called Franco-Flemish style" (Pérez) and some anonymous pieces. As the track-list shows the titles are sometimes 'corrupted': Binchois' chanson Je loe amours is called Jeloymors in the Buxheim Codex. The fact that no fewer than seven different arrangements are included in this manuscript attests to this piece's popularity. One also needs a little imagination to recognize Se la phase pale as Se la face ay pale, one of Dufay's most famous compositions. It has not been possible as yet to explain why Dufay's ballade Or me veult bien has been included with the title Portugaler.

The pieces included here are performed in various combinations of instruments, especially the clavisimbalum, organetto and harp. "In a few compositions, located in strategic positions in our recueil, the voice joins Tasto Solo to enliven the rhetoric and expression of the poetry, and the beauty and refinement of the melodies." That turns out to be a very lucky shot: Barbara Zanichelli has a very beautiful voice and sings brilliantly; especially the long Dueil angoisseus is excellent. However, the main feature of this disc is the playing of the keyboard instruments. Although such instruments may participate in performances and recordings of medieval and renaissance music once in a while, Tasto Solo is the only ensemble which focuses on their role in those ancient times. I have heard this ensemble several times in the Festival Early Music Utrecht and greatly enjoyed their performances. Tasto Solo is certainly one of the most interesting ensembles for early music, and that is confirmed here. The performance of vocal music with such instruments shows them in a different light, for instance in the dynamic shading - here for example in Ciconia's Ligiadra donna which opens the programme. One may think that vocal music has to become quite dry and mechanical if played on keyboard instruments but that is far from the truth. That is partly due to the character of the instruments themselves but also the way they are played, with passion and refinement.

If you are interested in renaissance music this disc is indispensable. It is also a major contribution to our knowledge of the history of keyboard instruments and keyboard music.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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