musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

"Christmas in the Notre Dame"

Discantus/Brigitte Lesne
concert: Dec 15, 2011, Ammerzoden, Ammersoyen Castle

anon: Ave parens / Ad gratie (motet); Benedicamus Domino (organum); Cantu miro, summa laude (sequence); Catolicorum concio (organum); Cum natus esset Jhesus (lesson); Dulcis sapor novi mellis (trope of Benedicamus domino); Ecce mundi gaudium (rondeau); Exultet hec concio (rondeau); Hodie Christus natus est (antiphon); Judicii signum (Sybillian prophecy); Letatus sum / Stantes erant (alleluia); Magnum nomen Domini (antiphon); Mater virgo pia / Mater Dei (motet); Natus est hodie Dominus / Igitur mundana fabrica (conductus); Nicholai solemnia (conductus); Nicholaus pontifex (rondeau); O Maria, stella maris (conductus); Plus belle que flor / Quant revient / L'autrier (motet); Quanto decet honore (conductus); Res iocosa (conductus); Rorate celi desuper (introitus); Verbum patris humanatur (conductus); Viderunt Emmanuel (trope from the gradual); Virgo viget melius / Castrum pudicicie (motet); PEROTINUS (fl c1200): Vide prophetie

Christel Boiron, Hélène Decarpignies, Lucie Jolivet, Brigitte Lesne, Caroline Magalhaes, Catherine Sargent, voice, hand-bells

Polyphony is one of the main compositional styles in Western music history. The impressive repertoire of the renaissance - in particular by representatives of the Franco-Flemish school - is frequently performed and recorded. The earliest specimens of polyphony, from the Middle Ages and the early renaissance, are far lesser known. It is this repertoire which is the core-business of the ensemble Discantus which gave a series of concerts in the Netherlands last week. With six women's voices it concentrated on repertoire for Advent and Christmas from the 12th and 13th centuries. The programme was called "Christmas in the Notre-Dame", referring to the cathedral which was a centre of liturgical music and gave the name to the so-called Notre-Dame school, of which Perotinus and Leoninus are the main representatives.

It wasn't quite clear, though, where the pieces on the programme exactly came from. All were anonymous, with the exception of Vide prophetie, a conductus by Perotinus. It wasn't only polyphony which was performed: there were also some pieces for one voice, including plainchant. In the early stages of polyphony the number of parts was restricted to two and three.

There was quite some variety within the programme. This was reflected by the various genres which were represented. The rondeau is a piece with various stanzas which all end with a refrain. Two were included in the first section, devoted to music for St Nicholas: Nicholaus pontifex and Exultet hec concio. An important genre was the conductus which had its origin in southern France, but blossomed in particular in Notre Dame in Paris. It doesn't have a specific character but is often divided into various stanzas. It was later replaced by the motet. Several motets were performed, with two or three texts sung simultaneously.

We may be here at the early stages of polyphony, many items were highly sophisticated and sometimes quite virtuosic. That is in particular the case with those which are known as organa. Two pieces of this kind were performed, Catolicorum concio, and Benedicamus Domino which closed the programme. The organum is characterised by a sustained-note tenor over which one or two contratenors are sung, mostly highly elaborate and melismatic. The same goes for the alleluia Letatus sum / Stantes erant. On the other hand there were also some pieces which were more syllabic.

The ensemble had made a fine selection which gave a captivating picture of one of the most exciting periods in the history of Western music. It is hard to decide exactly how this repertoire was performed at the time it came into existence. One of the features of Discantus' interpretation is the use of bells in various tunings. There is pictorial evidence about their use but it is not known exactly where and when they were used. As the ensemble's director Brigitte Lesne admits their performance practice is a suggestion, and doesn't pretend to reflect historical circumstances. Moreover, the bells they use are different from the kind of bells which were used in the early renaissance. This is all fair enough; even so, I think the bells were used a bit too often. It is nice to pay attention to an element of historical performance practice which is often overlooked, but it should not be exaggerated.

Another question in regard to performance practice is the scoring. Is it in line with the historical circumstances to perform this repertoire with more than one voice per part? And then there is the matter of the venue where the music was performed. A medieval castle seems to be the appropriate space to sing medieval and early renaissance music. But as most music was written for churches and cathedrals a large space with a little more reverberation would probably be better suited. At the moment I am writing this review I haven't heard the radio broadcast from the Grote Kerk in Enschede which could give some idea about the effect of this music being performed in a larger space.

That said I greatly enjoyed the concert. The singing was quite good, despite some minor flaws in intonation and ensemble. And notwithstanding their different characteristics the six voices of Discantus blended quite well.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Concert reviews