musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

"The Italian adventure of Guillaume Dufay"

concert: Nov 27, 2013, Muiden, Muiderslot

anon: Belfiore, dance; ANTONIUS DE CIVITATE (1392-1421): Strenua quem duxit/Gaudeat; BARTOLOMEO DA BOLOGNA (fl c1405-1427): Morir desio, ballata; Johannes CICONIA (1370-1412): Ut te per omnes celitus/Ingens alumnus Padue, motet; Guillaume DUFAY (1397-1474): C'est bien raison de devoir essaucier, ballade; Flos florum, motet; O Sancte Sebastiane/O Martyr Sebastiane/O quam mira refulsit gratia/Gloria et honore, isorhythmic motet; Resveilles vous et faites chiere lye, ballade; Rite maiorem Jacobum canamus/Arcibus summis/Ora pro nobis Dominum, isorhythmic motet; Supremum est mortalibus bonum, isorhythmic motet; Vassilissa ergo gaude/Concupivit rex, isorhythmic motet; Vergine bella, canzona; Doron David SHERWIN (*1962): Et gloria eius

Claudia Caffagni, voice, lute; Livia Caffagni, voice, recorder, fiddle; Elisabetta de Mircovich, voice, fiddle; Doron David Sherwin, voice, cornett; Matteo Zenatti, voice, harp

The Festival Early Music Utrecht 2013 had "Europe" as its subject, at the occasion of the remembrance of the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 which in many ways cemented the political balance of power at the continent. Four composers were given the status of 'composer in residence' as they could be considered 'European' composers. Johannes Ciconia was chosen as a representative of the early renaissance. That certainly was a good choice, but almost every composer of the time could have been taken instead. There was no such thing as 'national identity', and regions could change from one ruler to another as an effect of wars or through (political) marriages. Composers moved back and forth from one country or region to another. Despite the difference in the language of their own country or region, they all understood and spoke Latin. There were hardly any 'national styles' in music either. A composer like Guillaume Dufay worked in various parts of Europe and composed in Latin, French and Italian. He easily incorporated different influences in his oeuvre, for instance from England what is generally known as the contenance angloise.

Dufay was the subject of a concert by the ensemble laReverdie which made a short tour through the Netherlands during the last week of November. I heard them in the probably most appropriate venue, the Muiderslot, a medieval castle close to Amsterdam. The programme was called "The Italian adventure of Guillaume Dufay" and started with some music he may have heard when he arrived there and which are representative of the musical climate of his days. The first piece was the ballata Morir desio by Bartolomeo da Bologna, a representative of what is known as ars subtilior. That also goes for the next two composers on the programme, Antonius de Civitate and Johannes Ciconia. Both were represented by a motet with two different texts sung simultaneously with a third voice singing the tenor. Obviously it is very hard to understand what exactly is sung. Apparently that was not of great concern to the composers of those days. This music is rhythmically very complicated. It is not easy to deal with and the performance by laReverdie was quite different from that of the ensemble Mala Punica in its Ciconia concert in the 2013 Utrecht festival. Whereas in the latter's performances one may get the feeling that a piece falls apart and the attention to the rhythm goes at the cost of the melody that was quite different here. The singing and playing in this music was admirable.

Dufay has left a large oeuvre of sacred and secular pieces. The ensemble had chosen some Latin motets, mostly so-called isorhythmic motets - including some with different texts -, an Italian canzona - the famous Vergine bella, probably one of Dufay's best-known pieces - and two ballades on a French text. These were all performed with a mixture of voices and instruments, mostly well-chosen, although sometimes I felt that the cornett was a little too dominant. The room where the concert took place is pretty small and the cornett just didn't have enough space. One could also question the combination of instruments. In particular the playing together of instruments of different families is a matter of debate.

Another interesting aspect of the music of the renaissance is the issue of expression. Nobody will deny that music of Dufay's time is not expressive in the same way as music of, for instance, the 17th century. There is also no direct relationship between text and music in the sense that words or phrases are directly illustrated in the music. However, rhetorics played a role in music before the baroque era. That struck me during this concert especially in Flos florum, a prayer to the Virgin Mary which ends with a strong plea for mercy which is clearly emphasized by Dufay and which was brought out eloquently by the ensemble. The same is true for Supremum est mortalibus which was written at the occasion of the meeting between King Sigismund and Pope Eugene in Rome in 1433. It ends with the wish: "Let these be our priests for all eternity: Eugene and Sigismund! Amen". It is expression of a different kind as in much later music, but quite effective and incisive all the same.

It only remains to add that the playing of the various instruments by all the members of the ensemble was quite impressive. There were some instrumental pieces in the programme, only one specifically written for instrumental performance - a dance called Belfiore - and a motet which was interpreted on instruments - a common practice at the time.

The music of the programme almost guaranteed that the audience had a good time - this repertoire can hardly fail to captivate. However, one needs performers who know how to bring out its intricacies, based on a thorough command of the idiom. That was certainly the case here, and the long and sustained applause of the audience was well deserved.

Johan van Veen ( 2013)

Concert reviews