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Puzzles and Perfect Beauty: Italian Music at the end of the Middle Ages
Gherardello de FIRENZE (d.1364) I’vo bene; Lorenzo da FIRENZE (d.1372) Donna e fu; Matteo da PERUGIA (fl.c.1400) Se je me plaing; Pres du soleil; Johannes CICONIA (1370-1412) Sus un fontayne; Antonella da CASERTA (fl.c1400) Beauté parfaite; Bartolina da PADUA arr, Faenza Codex (c.1410) La douce cere; J. de SENLECHES (fl.c.1380) En Attendant espérance; En ce gracieux temps; Fuions de ci; Philipoctus da CASERTA (fl.c.1370) De ma dolour; ANON Istampita Ghaetta; ANON, arr Faenza Codex (c.1410) Or sus, vous dormès trop
The Newberry Consort/Mary Springfels
Recorded at the AirWave centre, Chicago January 2004
NOYSE PRODUCTIONS no number given [75.17]


The Newberry Consort are a group of American musicians who have been making recordings of early music since about 1990 when they recorded for Harmonia Mundi ‘Musick of Severall Friends’ - English songs of the 17th Century. Mary Springfels has always directed them and her work is marked by meticulous scholarship and, most recently, fine presentation.

The title of this CD takes its name from the period in musical history when, due to the swift development of notational techniques, composers began to be able to write down anything they wanted. This led to experimentation especially in the realm of highly complex rhythm. The last decades of the 14th century have been termed ‘The 14th century avant-garde’ (David Munrow) and the ‘Ars subtillior’ (Gustave Reese). This is a period when all artists became obsessed by puzzles and patterns. In English architecture you can see how masons, by using the compass on paper, discovered astonishingly varied and complex patterns which they were able to turn into a wide variety of delicate church window tracery in what we now call the ‘Decorated style’ and in France the ‘Flamboyant’. So in Mary Springfels’ notes she says that this CD shows how artists "indulged in games and puzzles - anagrams, secret canons and notational conundrums. They preferred three and even four part textures and ornately syncopated polyphonic structures." This music demonstrates all of these points.

Not all the composers are Italian but French and several of the pieces are in French. However, intercourse between the two cultures was common practice and composers especially moved freely and worked in several different countries.

It is quite probable that Gherardello da Firenze was a generation or so earlier than Anthonella da Caserta and Matteo da Perugia but even if you had no dates at your finger tips then by simply listening you can easily discern a development in the style and language of the music.

The disc opens with a lively rendering of the earliest piece, the simple monodic ‘I’vo bene’ by Gherardello accompanied by percussion and a drone for colour. It tells of a lover who spurns one who only loves himself. The percussionist Najib Bahri is brilliant throughout, playing a very Eastern-sounding bongo which fits with the rather oriental melody.

The CD continues with a more than usually Arabic-sounding instrumental version of a balleta by Lorenzo (c.1370). The contrast with the Perugia which follows (‘Se je me plang’) is startling. Incidentally the crusaders would have been fascinated by the music they heard in the middle east. They bartered beads for instruments bringing them back home. They also used them in their own dance music. In the Perugia, Drew Minter is accompanied by lute (which is actually an Arab instrument), citole and vielle. In the next track, the beautiful and highly complex ‘Sus un fontaine’ by Ciconia, we have a superb a capella performance with Minter, Ellen Hargis and Mark Rimple. This made me yearn for more tracks which were instrument-less. How much better this is than that by Malla Punica (Arcana A23). Here we have a more natural rhythmic flow and attention to phrasing. I feel that another couple more tracks like this would have worked wonders especially in the graceful and playful ‘En ce gracieux temps’, on which Mary Hargis is delightfully double-tracked in the Cucus. The same can be said of the long solos given to Drew Minter, perhaps ‘En attendent’. I was surprised to find that on this recording this song is attributed to Senleches. It is normally attributed to Philipoctus da Caserta. Perhaps recent scholarship has left me behind. The only redeeming factor in the attribution is that some of the lines sound a little like Senleches’ famous and curious ‘la harpe de sa melodie’.

As much as I like Drew Minter’s firm and ideal counter-tenor I would have liked, for the sake of repertoire balance, to have had at least one more item for voices only. Also one more item featuring the gorgeous soprano voice of Ellen Hargis and perhaps a re-jigging of the track order would have been welcome. The instrumental participation is certainly colourful and always superbly rendered. Springfels tells us that Howard Mayor Brown has posited instrumental participation in 14th century Italian music to be more of likelihood than recent English scholars have suggested. She adds that "French instrumentalists ... left no music specifically intended for instruments. Whereas from Italy we have the Faenza Codex which "gives ample testimony to the abilities of Italian instrumentalists". Food for thought here.

Despite these caveats, I have enjoyed this CD and can recommend it with just a few nagging reservations.

The CD is inscribed ‘In memory of the life and work of Howard Mayer Brown’

Gary Higginson

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