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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

A Songbook for Isabella: Music from the Circle of Isabella d’Este c. 1500
Antoine BUSNOIS (d.1492) Fortuna desperate a 4;
Johannes OCKEGHEM (d.1497) Prenez sur may;
Firminus CARON (c.1480) Helas que pera adventure;
Alexander AGRICOLA (d.1506) Si dedero;
Josquin des PREZ (d.1525) In te domine speravi;
Iannis PLICE (?) A la pesca a 4;
Heinrich ISAAC (d.1517) La Mi a 4; Benedictus; Absque verbis a 3; Gratis acceptistis a 4; La Mara a3 a 4.
Bartolemeo TROMBONCINO (c.1500) Or che son di preggion; Anon , Or su corere; Facia ognon in fin che po; A la cazza; Galliardo; Kyrie Eleison a 4; Columba senza fielle; Pavana regia; Ave Maris stella; O triumphale domine; Verbum caro factus est; Ne la digna stella; Recerchar and Benedictus; Salterello Zorzi; Forte cosa e la speranza;
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo-soprano)
Musica Antiqua of London/Philip Thorby
Recorded at the National Centre for Early Music, York, September 2002
SIGNUM SIGCD 039 [75.26]


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This CD gives us an opportunity to hear the music contained in a late-Renaissance songbook belonging to a very important member of the Italian aristocracy. The selection reflects their sophisticated tastes, their religious expectations and their tastes in entertainment. Not surprisingly it contains music by that most international and cosmopolitan of Renaissance composers, Heinrich Isaac (c.1450-1515). He is represented here by five pieces. Busnois and Josquin get only one each. These composers are from the so-called ‘Netherlandish school’ of the late 15th Century as are Agricola and Ockeghem.

The Italian ‘frottola’ is represented by several anonymous pieces like the opening ‘Or an corere’ or by that most tuneful of Italians, Tromboncino, as in ‘Or che di preggion’. Neither is the selection short of sacred works with, for example, the ‘Ave Maris Stella’ which has the even verses set polyphonically and the odd ones in ‘alternatum’- i.e. in plainsong.

With only one singer, the normally rather blanched and pure Clare Wilkinson, the sacred music accompanied by viols, whilst not inauthentic or dull, is interpreted and has the same texture as the frottola. This gives the disc a somewhat monochrome atmosphere. However there is a touch of 1960s ‘Musica Reservata’ about some tracks which is most welcome and adds a splash of colour. I thought that the days of four raucous crumhorns were practically over. Well not so, as we can hear in ‘O triumphale diamante’, a piece addressed to a diamond admired even by the pope. The style of the song also brings out a touch of the great Janatina Noorman in Wilkinson … but why this song?

In fact the group has taken a similar approach before. Listen to the CD ‘Master of Musicians’ (Signum CD025) with Josquin’s ‘Bergerette savoysienne’ when Jeannie Cassidy was then the strident mezzo. Talking of which, both CDs follow a now familiar pattern of grouping pieces under related headings. This new CD has headings such as ‘La Fortuna’ (secular love lyrics) or ‘In Festo Natalis Domini’ (Christmas pieces).

Incidentally Isabella d’Este was a fine musician. Philip Thorby tells us in the accompanying essay that musically Isabella "was genuinely gifted". "She succumbed to the new craze which had swept through the Ferraran court – the playing of consorts of the new ‘viole’ in, as her brother Alfonso was to write ‘of all the sizes of the world’".

The disc achieves an equal balance of vocal as against instrumental items. The most common instruments are the set of viols. These were made specially for Philip Thorby and the group. They are illustrated on pages 34 and 35 of the excellent booklet. We are told that this is "the first group in the world to commission and use late 15th Century viols and is the only group in Great Britain to play on matched sets of viols, crumhorns and recorders especially commissioned for the group, mostly copied form 16th Century originals". What difference does it make? To the performers, a great deal. This can be communicated to listeners in a sensitivity of performance and respect for instrumental textures not normally encountered. This is particularly evident with a piece realized for broken consort. The viols sound whiter and plainer than in other versions - perhaps more restrained. This suits this particular repertoire well and can be most beautiful as, for example, in Isaac’s ‘Absque verba’.

It’s good to see the Early Music Centre at the once forgotten church of St.Margaret’s, Walmgate, in York being used for recordings. The acoustic is excellent and there is no extraneous noise.

This is not a high profile early music CD such as we have seen recently from ‘The Harp Consort’ or in the past from Gothic Voices. It contains repertoire raked over before, but it is a very civilized disc with music to charm and excite. The performers are clear about their objectives and they know musically how to achieve them.

Gary Higginson

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