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"Hollandse fragmenten - Early Dutch polyphony"

Dir: Niels Berentsen

rec: May 2017, The Hague, Oud-Katholieke Kerk; Nov. 2017, Amsterdam, Orgelparka
muso - MU-042 (© 2021) (67'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL; lyrics - translations: E/D/F/NL
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Adieu vous di; Asperancea; Au debot de no rue; Empris domoyrsa; En ties en latin en romans; Gloria; Ho ho ho; Indescorta Ist mi bescheert; Kyrie cunctipotensa; O crux gloriosaa; Och lief gesel; Renouveler mu feist; Martinus FABRI (?-c1400): Een cleyn parabel; Eer ende lof; Martinus FABRI: N'ay je cause / Oswald VON WOLKENSTEIN (1376-1445): Fröleichen so well wir; plainchant: Deo gracias; Salve Regina; Hubertus DE SALINIS (1378/84-fl 1403/09): Gloria Iubilacio; Psallat chorus/Eximie Pater

Andrew Hollock, Oskar Verhaar, alto; Niels Berentsen, Benjamin Jago Larham, tenor; Jacques Meegens, organa

There is no lack of recordings of music from the Middle Ages. The repertoire is mostly from France, Italy or Germany, and sometimes music from the 'outskirts' of Europe is making an appearance on disc. Music from the northern part of the Low Countries is rather rare. Fortunately there are some ensembles which do research into what has been left of medieval music. Diskantores is one of them, and the disc under review is the result.

The title of this disc reveals one of the main problems of performing this repertoire. Translated it says "Dutch fragments". Many pieces have been preserved fragmentarily. Three university libraries keep fragments of manuscripts which were cut up in the modern early era to be recycled as fly-leaves and book bindings. Music was not considered a thing of art, but only something that was to be kept intact as long as it was needed, for instance in the liturgy. As soon as fashion changed, 'old stuff' was destroyed or recycled. This habit lasted well into the 18th century. It was basically not until the 19th century that music was considered as something valuable in itself.

Because of their fragmentary state, it is often hard to establish where exactly the music was written or performed. However, as many pieces are in Middle-Dutch, it is likely that they come from around the court of the county of Holland in The Hague, or the urban environment of Utrecht. For this recording some reconstruction was needed.

The programme includes both sacred and secular pieces. The former were used for the liturgy in churches and convents, whereas the songs - either in Dutch or in French - were sung in private circles, among the higher echelons of society. The subject matter of the latter is mostly love or nature, especially spring. Martinus Fabri is one of the few composers from the northern Netherlands who is known by name. He acted as a singer at the court of Holland. Only four pieces by him are known, and three are included here. N'ay je cause d’estre lies et joyeux is an example of a contrafactum: Fabri makes use of a song by Oswald von Wolkenstein, Fröleichen so well wir. The performers decided to mix the two songs: the various stanzas are sung in alternation. In the Middle Ages there was no strict separation of the sacred and the secular. Fabri's song Een cleyn parabel refers to the Virgin Mary, especially in the second stanza: "I am now well aware how this game is played, because of the sweetest lady who ever walked the earth. She carried a small and lovely child, which she regarded so lovingly that it gladdened my heart". En ties en latin en romans is a song in three different languages: Dutch, French and Latin. Och lief gesel is a dance song.

As far as the sacred repertoire is concerned, only one composer known by name is represented: Hubertus (or Hymbert) de Salinis. There is no information about him in the liner-notes, which is especially regrettable as his biography in New Grove does not refer to the Netherlands. He is called a French composer and worked for many years in Portugal, but is also mentioned as a singer in the papal chapel. Why were the two pieces by him selected for this recording? His Gloria Iubilacio is interesting for its tropes - textual insertions into a liturgical piece - as they express the hope for the end of the Great Schism at Pisa: "Thanks we give to you, because, by ending the schism, the Holy Spirit gave us a true pope we believe in". His Psallat chorus in novo carmine/Eximie pater et regie is an example of a piece with two different texts sung simultaneously, a common practice at the time.

The sacred part also includes plainchant, but that is sung here in a late-medieval style, with additional chromatic musica ficta and improvised polyphony. In addition to the four voices, the organ also plays its part in the programme. Jacques Meegens plays some pieces in tablature and adds improvisations. The Kyrie cunctipotens from the Faenza Codex is an alternatim piece: the verses of the Kyrie are alternately sung and played. The organ is the reconstruction of a late fifteenth-century instrument, which is part of the Orgelpark in Amsterdam.

It seems very likely that all the pieces on this disc have been recorded for the first time. That makes its release all the more important. It sheds light on a part of medieval music that is hardly known and seldom explored. The mixture of sacred and secular music does not only guarantee for variety, but also reflects the range of religious and social life in the northern Netherlands in the late Middle Ages. Diskantores was founded in 2015 and made appearances at several festivals for early music. Here it consists of four singers. I can't remember having heard it before, and this acquaintance is a most pleasant one. I am impressed by what they bring to the table here. The choice of music is original and the singing is outstanding. The pronunciation of the Dutch texts is very idiomatic, and in the Latin and French items they use historical pronunciation. The contributions of Meegens at the organ are a nice addition to this programme of vocal music.

Lovers of medieval music should not hesitate to add this disc to their collection. This music is something you have certainly not heard before.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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