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Concert reviews

Francesco Landini: "Sensual ballate from the Trecento"
La Reverdie/Claudia Caffagni
concert: April 8, 2022, Utrecht, Pieterskerk

Che cosa è quest'amor che 'l ciel produce; Che pena è questa; Divennon gli ochi mie nel partir duro; Gram pinat'agli ochi; Guard'una volta incià verso 'l tuo servo; L'alma mie piange; Mostrommi Amor già fra le verdi fronde; Muort'oramai deh misero dolente; Nella tuo luce tien la vita mia; Non arà may pietà questa mia dona; Non per fallir di me tuo vista pia; Ochi dolenti mie che pur piangete; Per un amante rio tal pena sento; Poiché partir convienmi, donna cara; Tante belleçe in questa donna stanno

Claudia Caffagni, voice, lute; Livia Caffagni, voice, recorder, fiddle; Christophe Deslignes, organetto; Elisabetta de Mircovich, voice, fiddle, rebec; Teodora Tommasi, voice, recorder, harp; Matteo Zenatti, voice, harp, tambourine

One of the nice things of the early music concert season in the Netherlands is that one can listen not only to music of the renaissance and baroque periods - with now and then a foray to later repertoire - but also music from the Middle Ages, that usually is mostly performed in specialized early music festivals. The concert that I attended in the Pieterskerk in Utrecht was a good example. It was entirely devoted to the oeuvre of Francesco Landini, one of the most prominent representatives of what is generally called the Trecento.

It is not known when or where he was born; his birthplace was probably Florence. One of the most notable facts from his childhood is that he lost is eyesight because of smallpox. It stimulated him to devote himself to music; ironically, without this disaster we would probably never have heard any music by a composer with the name of Landini. That would have been a big shame, as his music is of superb quality.

His oeuvre includes the then common genres of secular vocal music: virelais, madrigals, a caccia and a large number of ballate. It seems that he did not compose any sacred works; some pieces of that kind have been attributed to him, but are considered of doubtful authenticity. How does one make a selection from this large output? The ensemble La Reverdie focused on one genre, the ballata. That does not solve the problem: there are 89 ballate for two voices, 42 for three voices and at least nine which have been preserved in versions for two and for three voices. The ensemble presented a programme of fifteen pieces under the theme of the conflict between soul and body.

In the programme notes, Davide Daolmi stated: "As for many other Italian poets, the sense of sight was an important subject for Landini. In these topos, the eyes are a passage through which love must pass in order to reach the soul. It is in fact the gate that lifts love up to joy or plunges it into despair." No wonder then that the eye and, more generally, sight regularly turn up in the texts that he set to music. However, even though it was a common theme, it does not make it less remarkable, considering that Landini was blind. One piece in the programme mentioned expressis verbis blindness: in Mostrommi Amor già fra le verdi fronde, the author - probably Landini himself - describes a hawk, which - despite the fact that he is blind - instinctively flies high in the air. Instead of sadness about the absence of eyesight, here the author expresses resignation to the situation. It was probably because this specific mention of blindness that this piece was included in the programme, although it is not a ballata but rather a madrigal.

The chosen subject is worked out in different ways in the ballate, and that was reflected in the music. Most pieces were rather introverted, and that was perfectly expressed in the way they were performed. As is the case in most ensembles specialized in medieval and early renaissance music, the members are all-rounders: they sing and play various instruments. That allows for combinations of voices that are ideally suited to a particular piece. The only performer who did not sing was Christophe Deslignes, who played the organetto. But as he had a separate biography in the programme, he may not be a fixed member of the ensemble. Considering that Landimi was an organist, the organetto obviously played a major role in the performances. Deslignes played it brilliantly, and substantially contributed to the realization of the programme. Percussion was used sparingly, such as in Per un amante rio tal pena sento, which was one of the more exuberant pieces.

It does not happen that often that a concert is entirely devoted to Landini, and this was a memorable event. That was also due to the excellent performances of La Reverdie. The members have all very fine voices, which are perfectly suited to this repertoire. Some ballate are rhythmically quite complex, and that requires the utmost concentration. The way the performers dealt with the requirements of these ballate was most admirable. Various instruments were used - winds, strings and plucked instruments - but always in a perceptive way, in the interest of communicating the content of a piece.

Obviously, the large audience was happy, and was rewarded with an encore. Let's hope that La Reverdie will return soon.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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