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Concert reviews






"The Carolingian Orpheus"
Per-Sonat
Dir: Sabine Lutzenberger
concert: Jan 27, 2024, Utrecht, Pieterskerk


[in order of appearance] anon: Sicut fuit Jonas in ventre (organum); Aurea personet lira; Alleluia. Adorabo ad templum sanctum tuum (organum); Marc LEWON: Omorstampie; anon: Popule meus (organum); Alleluia. Ave Maria; Pastor cum traheret; Petrus ABAELARDUS (1079-1142): Planctus David (Dolorum solatium); anon: Donec gratus; Albi ne doleas; O fons Bandusiae; Christus resurgens (organum); Alleluia. Surrexit Domino (organum); O mors (organum); Miserarum est

Tobie Miller, Karin Weston, voice; Elizabeth Sommers, voice, fiddle; Sabine Lutzenberger, voice, harp; Marc Lewon, voice, citole, Carolingian cythara

Times of change are the particularly interesting phases in music history. One of them is the time that polyphony was born. For many centuries music was monophonic, and as it was not written down, one can only guess how it may have been performed. Improvisation must have played a major role in music making. Singers undoubtedly accompanied themselves, but how and on which instruments? Much research has been done, but - hopefully informed - guesswork is still an unavoidable part of any performance.

The earliest pieces of polyphony that have come down to us are from the 11th century. The ensemble Per-Sonat, directed by Sabine Lutzenberger, went further back into history, to the treatise Musica enchiriadis, dating from the 9th century. It presented a programme of music from the 10th to the 12th century, either monophonic or polyphonic. Sacred and secular works alternated, and this was not just for the sake of variety, but - as for most of the Middle Ages and Renaissance - there was no watershed between the sacred and the secular. In this case there was also a musical reason: in the above-mentioned treatise, the power of polyphony is compared to the rhetorical power of Orpheus. The programme notes also mentioned that St Augustine compared Orpheus's descent into the underworld with Christ's descent into hell.

A number of pieces, called organum, were performed, as the programme said, "according to the organum rules of Musica enchiriadis". New Grove explains: "Organum properly refers to singing in 4ths and 5ths. In the Enchiriadis treatises, the organal voice (vox organalis) is below the principal voice (vox principalis) in a basic two-voice texture." It did not become entirely clear whether the pieces with this indication were taken from the treatise, or whether the examples in the treatise were worked out according to the rules by the performers. Most of the sacred pieces were sung by the female members of the ensemble, but sometimes they alternated with Marc Lewon, such as in the monophonic Aurea personet lira, which was part of the first chapter.

The second chapter was then devoted to the descent into the underworld, starting with an estampie, made and played by Marc Lewon. It was followed by a chant from an important source of medieval sacred music, preserved at the monastery of Einsiedeln. The text, Popule meus, is taken from the Improperia for Good Friday: "O my people, what have I done to you? Or wherein have I grieved you? Answer me. Because I led you out of the land of Egypt: You have prepared a Cross for your Saviour." This section closed with the Alleluia. Ave Maria from the Winchester Troper, an important source but of limited use, because most pieces are impossible to transcribe.

The next chapter was about songs of mourning. Marc Lewon opened again, with a brilliant piece of story-telling. Like a medieval bard, he told a story taken from Horace's Odes, about Helen's being led away from her Spartan homeland. This is an anonymous piece from the 11th century, and the performance must have been the result of Lewon's attempts to recreate the way such a story was told at the time. It was utterly convincing, also due to his lively performance.

Next came Sabine Luztenberger, who gave an incisive account of the Planctus David, David's lament on the death of Saul and Jonathan, a really moving piece by Petrus Abaelardus. Lutzenberger's performance was very differentiated, effectively expressing the variety of emotions in this piece.

In the next chapter, Horace returned with three texts set in monophony, and performed with several female voices in unison, alternated with Lewon, or one voice. And then the programme turned to the resurrection, introduced by another instrumental piece from Marc Lewon (probably Stanpites Dolorum solatium, announced earlier in the programme). It was followed by another organum, Christus resurgens, again according to the rules of Musica enchiriadis. Another of the few pieces from the Winchester Troper that have been possible to transcribe: Alleluia. Surrexit domino. This section closed with O mors, another organum, whose text is secular, as it speaks about the underworld, but with an episode in plainchant, that was not included in the programme and which I was not able to identify.

The concert closed with another 11th-century setting of a text by Horace, sung by the entire ensemble.

It brought to an end one of the most interesting concerts I have heard in recent years. This is really fascinating stuff, and one can only admire performers who attempt to bring it to life, with so relatively few hard facts to rely upon. One needs a thorough knowledge of the period this music was written and the way music was performed, to come up with a performance that is plausible. That is exactly what was the case here. The singing was of the highest order, and the way the music was communicated was convincing, and in that respect entirely 'authentic'.

It was a highly memorable event, and I can only recommend to purchase the disc with the same programme that has been released last year at the label Christophorus. I don't have it, but according to what I have read, its booklet includes much information about the music and the way it is performed.

Johan van Veen ( 2024)

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