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The Spirits of England and France, Vol. 2: Songs of the trouvères
see end of review for details
Gothic Voices/Christopher Page
rec. 15-17 December 1994, location not stated (Rickmansworth Masonic School Chapel?) DDD.
Texts and translations included.
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55282 [61:59]
Experience Classicsonline


The recording of this second volume in the Gothic Voices’ series, The Spirits of England and France, followed hard on the heels of the first, recorded in March 1994 and now also on the budget-price Helios label (CDH55281). Three further volumes were to follow and it is to be hoped that these, too, will be reissued on Helios in the near future; the reissue of all five volumes on CDH55281-5 was announced as long ago as the 2006/7 Penguin Guide Yearbook. Let me direct you to that earlier review in order to reinforce my recommendation of Volume 1.

Whereas the first volume cast its net widely from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, volume 2 concentrates on the music of the trouvères, the Northern French equivalent of the Provençal troubadours, writing in the language which was the precursor of modern French. Though there are similarities between the troubadours and trouvères, the two should not be confused as, unfortunately, that review in the Penguin Guide Yearbook seems to do. You might wish to acquaint yourself with their troubadour precursors first, in which case you could do much worse than to try various recordings by the Martin Best Consort and Ensemble on Nimbus: Forgotten Provence (NI5445 - see review), Amor de lonh - The Distant Love of the Troubadours (NI5544 - see review) and The Last of the Troubadours (NI5261 - see review).

The themes will be familiar to anyone with the slightest acquaintance with medieval poetry of fin’amors or Courtly Love. It may have been a game - most scholars now think that CS Lewis took it too seriously in his seminal work on the subject, The Allegory of Love - but it was a serious literary and musical game. The fin’amors of Lancelot and Guinevere destroyed King Arthur and his entourage and Gawain’s dalliance with the Lady of the Castle of Hautdesert almost cost him his life at the hands of the Green Knight and led to his eternal shame:
Þ is is þe token of vntrawþe þat I am tan inne
and I mot nedez hit were wyle I may last ...
for þer hit onez is tachched twynne wil hit neuer
[This is the token of the unfaithfulness that I was caught in and I must needs wear it while I live; the stain never departs. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ll.2509-12) 
The courtly lover’s lot was hard: the first of the Grand Chants on the CD, Gace Brulé’s Desconfortez, plains de dolor (‘Disconsolate, full of sadness’, track 2) has all the ingredients: ‘she whom my heart most desires is killing me.’ Six of the tracks belong to this, the purest form of trouvère music.

If you know the Middle English Harley Lyrics, you’ll know that, while many of them belong to this purer type, there are also some of a more down-to-earth nature, such as The Wild Women of Ribblesdale:

Mosti ryden by Rybbesdale,
Wilde wymmen forte wale,
And welde whuch ich wolde,
founde were þe feyrest on
þ at euer was mad of blod ant bone,
in boure best with bolde.
[‘As I rode by Ribblesdale to choose wanton women and master any that I wished, I found the fairest one that ever was made of flesh and blood, one of the most valiant in her bower.’ No.7, ed. Brook, ll.1-5]

On this CD, the Pastourelles belong to this earthier type, as on track 1, Richart de Semilli’s Je chevauchai. This takes the form of a Chanson d’aventure: the singer rides out, finds a shepherdess who is waiting for her lover - almost inevitably named Robin - has his will of her, kisses her and leaves her to defend herself from Robin’s censure on the grounds that his delay was to blame. The blunt statement Quant j’oi tout fet de li quan’il m’agree - when I had done everything that I wanted with her - leaves even less to the imagination than one of the Harley chansons d’aventure - In a fryth as y con fare fremede: ‘As I was passing through an unfamiliar wood’ - where, after token resistance, the girl suddenly yields:

Þ e beste red þat y con to vs boþe
þ at þou me take ant y þe toward huppe
[‘The best thing for both of us would be for you to take me and for me to move towards you.’ No.8, ed. Brook, ll.41-2]

In Quant voi la fleur nouvele (tr.7) the girl is less willing but the result is the same - the singer, smitten by unendurable pain when the flowers appear in the Spring, takes the girl by force :

Pris la par la main nue,
Mis la seur l’erbe dure;
[‘I took her by the bare hand and laid her on the hard grass.’]

Because the Pastourelle represents a ‘lower’ tradition than the Grand chant, two of the three examples here are accompanied.

The balade, a word derived from Provençal, is represented by track 9, Un chant novel. Because of the dance associations - the word is the ancestor of both our modern English words ballad and ballet - percussion is employed here, too, to support the voice.

The Descort, or discordant style is also represented by just one example, Gautier de Dargies’ La doce pensee (tr.12). The discord lies in the fact that the stanzas are different from each other, the lines of the second stanza being notably different in length from the others.

Track 14, Adam de la Halle’s Assenés chi, Grievillier, is a Jeu parti, or debate song, in which Adam himself and Grievillier cosnsider how best to exalt love.

The final vocal item, Audefroi’s Au nouvel tens pascor (tr.18), a Chanson de toile, literally embroidery song, tells the story of Argente, the wife of Count Gui, abandoned by her husband for his mistress Sabine and sent into exile. The song’s burden, that whoever is wed to a bad husband often has a sad heart, switches the genders of the usual medieval version of that saying.

To modern ears the monophonic song of this period may seem to lack variety, but there is a degree of variety in the programme, as will be seen from the descriptions of the various forms briefly outlined above. It might be useful for the listener to know a little of medieval literature - most could probably place Tristan and Iseult, named in Donna pos vos ay chausida (tr.5) but fewer would probably recognise Erec and Enide, from Chrestien de Troyes’ Erec, among the lovers whom the singer claims to excel.

In accordance with Christopher Page’s normal practice, most of the vocal items, including all the Grands Chants, are performed unaccompanied, but there is more variety than on many of his recordings: tracks 1, 5, 7, 9 and 13 are accompanied by percussion, fiddle or lute. I can honestly report that my ear did not crave an accompaniment in the other items. All the singing is excellent; though a great admirer of Emma Kirkby, I have to admit that her performances here (trs. 5 and 9), excellent as they are, are equalled by the other contributors. It would be invidious to single out any one performer.

It goes without saying, with Christopher Page at the helm, that the scholarship of these performances, including the Old French pronunciation, is impeccable. That doesn’t mean, however, that everything is boringly proper. Some of the singing, as from Margaret Philpot on tr.13, is appropriately forthright, though none of it ever approaches the gloriously OTT style which used to be associated with Jantina Noorman and Musica Reservata.

Two other instrumental forms, both probably originating as dances, are included here as interludes between the vocal items, the Dansa and the Estampie. The Dansa originated in Provence - it is, indeed, an Occitan word, the language of that area - but the examples included here are late and modified by Northern French practice. The Estampie or Istampita probably also originated as a dance but figures in medieval manuscripts as an instrumental interlude, often intended for fiddle players to show off their technique.

The performances are all that we have come to expect from Gothic Voices, contriving to be scholarly and entertaining at the same time. The recording, too, is fully up to Hyperion’s usual high standards.

The presentation, too, is of the usual high quality, though the photograph of a statue of Countess Uta is much less colourful than the manuscript illustration on the cover of the first volume. The booklet is a straight reprint of that for the original full-price issue, with Christopher Page’s notes - scholarly but accessible - full texts and translations. Just occasionally I thought that the translation could be improved, as when sans retor (tr.12) is translated as ‘without renunciation’, when I should have thought ‘without respite’ more to the point.

As usual, prospective purchasers may sample excerpts and read the booklet on the Hyperion website

Otherwise, lovers of medieval music may order with confidence - and don’t forget the first volume (CDH55281).

Brian Wilson 

Details
Richart de SEMILLI (fl.1200-1200) Je chevauchai1,6 [2:37]
Gace BRULÉ (c.1160-after 1213) Desconfortez, plains de dolor [5:11]
ANONYMOUS - Medieval Estampie I7 [1:12]
Gace BRULÉ Quant define feuille et flor4 [3:20]
ANONYMOUS - Medieval Donna pos vos ay chausida 3,6 [1:31]
Gace BRULÉ De bien amer grant joie atent1 [4:41]
ANONYMOUS - Medieval Quant voi la fleur nouvele1,8 [2:38]
Gontier de SOIGNIES (fl. before 1220) Dolerousement comence2 [4:12]
Guibert KAUKESEL (fl. c.1230-1255) Un chant novel3, 10 [2:04]
Gace BRULÉ Cil qui d’amours4 [4:20]
ANONYMOUS - Medieval Estampie II7 [1:18]
Gautier de DARGIES (c.1165-after 1236) La doce pensee2 [4:40]
ANONYMOUS - Medieval Amors m’art con fuoc am flama1,8 [1:48]
Adam de la HALLE (1245/50-1285/8) Assenés chi, Grievilier4 [3:35]
Ernoul le vielle de GASTINOIS (fl. c.1280-1280) Por conforter mon corage5 [3:22]
ANONYMOUS - Medieval Estampie III9 [3:20]
Guibert KAUKESEL Fins cuers enamourés2 [3:44]
AUDEFROI le bastart (fl.1190-1230) Au novel tens pascor1 [7:25]

Margaret Philpot (alto)1; Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor)2; Emma Kirkby (soprano)3; Henry Wickham (bass)4; Leigh Nixon (tenor)5); Pavlo Beznosiuk (fiddle)7; Robert White (bagpipes)8; Pavlo Beznosiuk (fiddle)9; Nick Bicat (percussion)10/Christopher Page (lute6)

 


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