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Concert reviews

"Matteo da Perugia in Milan - Ballades and Virelais"
Tetraktys/Kees Boeke
concert: Oct 18, 2017, Zeist, Church of the Community of Moravian Brethren

anon: Le firmament (?Johannes CESARIS, fl 1406-1417); Lieta stella; MATTEO da Perugia (fl c1400): Belle sans per, virelai; Dame que j'aym, virelai; Dame souvrayne, virelai; Puisque je sui, virelai; Puisque la mort, ballade; Se je me pleing, ballade; Se pour loyaulment servir, rondeau

Stefanie True, soprano; Kees Boeke, flute, fiddle; Baptiste Romain, fiddle; Claire Piganiol, harp

The ensemble Tetraktys specialises in Italian and French music of the 14th and 15th centuries. It has released various excellent recordings in the last fifteen years or so. The vocal parts were usually taken care of by Jill Feldman, one of the nicest voices in the field of renaissance music. She seems to have called it a day recently, and her place has been taken by the young Canadian soprano Stefanie True, who is mostly active in later music, especially repertoire from the 18th century. I have heard some fine performances from her, but in recent years I noticed some tendencies which I didn't particularly like, especially a pretty frequent use of vibrato. Because of that I was curious to hear how she would do in this early repertoire.

The entire programme was devoted to one composer, Matteo da Perugia. Perugia is not his last name; it seems to indicate that he was from Perugia, although that is not certain by any means. In fact, we know very little about his life, and that includes the years of his birth and of his death. The first signs of his activities as a musician are from 1402 to 1407, when he was maestro di cappella in Milan Cathedral. He worked at the same cathedral from 1414 to 1416; nothing is known of his whereabouts in the intervening years. It has been suggested that he was in the entourage of Cardinal Pietro Filargo da Candia, who during the Council of Pisa in 1409 was elected antipope, but died the next year.

Despite his activities in the church, only a handful of sacred works have been preserved. The largest part of his extant oeuvre comprises secular songs, all but two ballate on French texts. That can be explained by the fact that there were close ties between the northern part of Italy and France. French was even the common language in the higher echelons of society. It seems that most of these texts are from Matteo's own pen, and in his liner-notes Kees Boeke noted that the combination of poet and composer in one person was a relic of the past, the time of the troubadours and trouvères.

Three forms were represented in the programme: the virelai, the rondeau and the ballade. The virelai seems to be of Arabic origin and may first have been used in northern Africa and Spain. Its basic structure is ABBA. The rondeau could take different forms, but the key aspect is the return of a couple of lines, which usually also open the piece. The music for each stanza follows the overall pattern I–I–II. Se pour loyaulment servir, the only rondeau in the programme, opens with a four-line stanza (I), followed by a stanza of two lines (II), a repeat of the first two lines of (I) and a stanza of four lines and closes with a repetition of the complete opening stanza (I). The ballade comprises three stanzas, sharing the same metrical and rhyme scheme and ending with the same refrain.

A superb example of the latter genre is Se je me pleing, one of the longest pieces in the programme. It is remarkable for several reasons. The first is that - unlike the other pieces - the text is put into the mouth of a woman, who laments the loss of her husband. The refrain sums up her feelings: "I will no longer put trust in Love". The second notable feature is that this piece can be considered a homage to Guillaume de Machaut, and therefore another token of Matteo's French leanings. It includes a textual and musical quotation from Machaut's ballade De Fortune me doy pleindre. Machaut also composed a ballade with the same title as Matteo's. It is also a virtuosic piece, especially because of the long lines in the vocal part and its wide range.

The latter are also features of two other specimens of the ars subtilior: the ballade Puisque la mort and the virelay Puisque je suis. Whereas most pieces are about the unreachable dame, the former is - like Se je me pleing - about death, probably that of an important person, like a countess or a queen, as Boeke suggested in his liner-notes. The programme ended with what was the most 'simple' and straightforward piece, the virelai Belle sans per, which Boeke called 'progressive', as it foreshadows the Burgundian chanson, as we know it from the oeuvre of Dufay and Binchois. It is also rhythmically different from the other items in the programme.

In between we heard to instrumental pieces, whose authorship is not established. These allowed for a closer listening to the instruments played during this concert. Their role was different in the various pieces of the programme, because not all the instrumental parts are equally pronounced. Even so, their role was essential, and they were masterfully played by Baptiste Romain, Kees Boeke and Claire Piganiol. Obviously Stefanie True played the main role in this concert. I wrote in my first paragraph that I was curious to hear how she would do in this music, which she probably never sang before. I have to say that I was quite impressed. Her breath control which she especially needed in the pieces with long legato lines, was admirable. She had no problem with the sometimes high notes in her part. There was no trace of the vibrato which sometimes damages her performances of baroque music. That would be pretty disastrous in this music where the blending of voice and instruments is so important. In fact, I came to the conclusion that her voice is pretty much tailor-made for this repertoire. I therefore hope that she will remain part of Tetraktys, and that we will hear more from her in this early repertoire.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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