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De Fragilitate: Piae Cantiones (16th Century)
Hymns from Mediaeval Finland
De Nativitate [18:49]: (Angelus emittitur [1:23]; Salve flos et decor [4:16]; Verbum caro factum est [2:06]; Congaudeat turba fidelium [1:52]; Parvulus nobis nascitur [2:59]; Personent hodie [1:30]; Nobis est natus hodie [2:26]; Paranymphus adiens [2:17])
De Passione [7:39]: (Iucundare iugiter [2:05]; Aetas carmen melodiae [3:38]; Aetas carmen melodiae [1:56])
De Fragilitate et Miseriis [9:29]: (Kurja, paha syntinen [4:44]; Mars praecurrit in planetis [1:43]; Cum sit omnis caro foenum [3:02])
De Vita Scholastica [12:11]: (Scholares convenite [3:35]; Zachaeus arboris [1:35]; O Scholares discite [4:37]; Sum in aliena provincia [2:24])
De Tempore Vernali [9:52]: (Ad perennis vitae fontem [2:15]; In vernali tempore [2:42]; Tempus adest floridum [1:40]; Kaikki maailma riemuitkohon [3:15])
Zefiro Torna (Cécile Kempenaers (voice); Els Van Laethem (voice); Timo Väänän (voice, kannel - a Finnish traditional plucked string instrument of the zither family); Jowan Merckx (recorder, bagpipes, bells); Liam Fenelly (fiddle, viola da gamba); Frank Van Eycken (percussion); Jurgen de bruyn (lute, voice, artistic leader))
Antwerp Cathedral Choir/Sebastiaan van Steenberge
rec. 1-3 June, 2007 Akademiezaal Sint-Truiden, Belgium. DDD
ETCETERA KTC 4023 [58:00]

We live at a time when we should be very thankful for the vast wealth of ‘early’ music now available to us. Barely a generation ago – certainly two – it would have been unlikely that a recording of a substantial portion of the corpus of mediaeval sacred music from Finland would have been thought likely to succeed. It is equally unlikely that anyone would then have assembled the resources and channelled the energy into producing and disseminating such.

Here, though, is a sumptuous and inspiring collection – representative and selective, rather than aggressively comprehensive – of some nearly two dozen pieces ranging in length from one and a half to four and three quarter minutes. The Piae Cantiones ecclesiasticae et scholasticae veterum episcoporum (‘pious songs for church and school by the old bishops’) was published in Turku, Finland, in 1582. It actually comprises music from a variety of places and times, though it’s safe to make two assumptions: that about half the 75 or so songs which it contains are Finnish… they are not to be found elsewhere, and are stylistically consistent. Secondly, we can determine very quickly not only that the songs are nearly all considerably older than the late sixteenth century, but also that some surely date back as much as 500 years. That many of the titles should be in Latin in Protestant Finland may be explained by the fact that the publication was sponsored by the Catholic sympathiser, King Johan III of Sweden, at that time ruler of Finland.

Evidence that the Piae Cantiones were an attempt to preserve a perhaps threatened local tradition of music hitherto transmitted only (or largely) orally is in the two republications within a few years - one in Finnish in 1616, a second again in Latin nine years after that; and many more before long. Significantly the Piae Cantiones have had a strong influence on contemporary Finnish music… Sibelius’ Carminalia as well as modern ‘folk’ song and other modern arrangements of them, for example.

The majority of these songs are related to Christmas – hence, presumably – the preponderance (almost a third) in the first batch (De Nativitate tr.s1-8) here. Others concern high points of the liturgical year (e.g. Easter – De Passione tr.s9-11), school life (tr.s15-18) and the woes of the human condition (tr.s12-14) as well as the rebirth of nature in spring (tr.s19-22). It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that anyone unfamiliar with Finnish music before the Early Modern period (or for that matter any era of that nation’s music) would do best to buy this CD, which is admittedly a little under-generous at less than an hour in length.

The performances are first class: Zefiro Torna performs on period instruments (from the 15th and 16th centuries), including the kannel (Estonian) or kantele (Finnish), a zither, or dulcimer. The particular combinations which we hear throughout the CD lend the music a definite ‘antique’, decidedly ‘folk’, aura. This does not detract from the clarity of the singing, though, by the four specialists in the group and by the half dozen young singers from the Antwerp Cathedral Choir. The Flemish Zefiro Torna (which was founded in 1996) draws players who first established themselves in such venerable ensembles as the Huelgas Ensemble, Collegium Vocale Ghent and Capilla Flamenca. The production and implied advocacy of Finnish music with such strong nationalist flavours by Flemish musicians is perhaps unexpected – but nevertheless to be applauded.

One’s overall impression is of quiet, self-confident, highly focused music with the harmonics, temporal variation and melodic richness of mediaeval song from other northern European traditions. The original Carmina Burana may come to mind. There is a certain sparseness, tempered by a springy jollity, particularly in the festive pieces. It’s the kantele that confers the greatest distinction on the music. It’s not an overly ‘twangy’ instrument, and serves as an effective accompanying instrument for the singers.

Other percussive instruments are not usually overdone. They too compliment and support the rather delicate tracing of what is a very tuneful collection of pieces. Although their use (and the fade out) in O Scholares discite does jar just a little and there is some modern-sounding syncopation in Sum in aliena provincia. You may not like the bells in In vernali tempore; they sound just a little false, almost intrusive. The slight breathiness of the recorder and its ever so marginal over-closeness in recording contribute in a way to a sense that this is spontaneous and very genuine music making; most definitely not purely demonstrative or reluctantly catalogued so as to be merely a set of examples. It’s worth listening to and getting to know in its own right.

Some of the songs (Personent hodie and Tempus adest floridum, for instance) will be recognized immediately. These incarnations delight for their tinges of freshness. Although Piae Cantiones is Finland’s only collection of its type, it does reflect wider European traditions; yet Zefiro Torna and the others have successfully emphasised the uniquely Finnish properties of the music… crystalline transparency and thin tonalities; a clarity of timbre that is still evident in modern Baltic unaccompanied choral works; a momentum which rarely stops for effect, but rather is created without fuss in the bracingly brittle blend of melody and words. Although one senses the scholastic origins of this combination, the music is never perfunctory or dry. Rather, its liveliness is internal and does not rely on excessive arranging. It really is Sibelius’ pure spring water again.

The recording is a good one and the booklet nicely illustrated with the text to all the songs in Latin/Finnish and English. Piae Cantiones would make a slightly different Christmas present as well as meet nicely the needs of anyone curious to experience Finnish music from the 500 year period in question.

Mark Sealey



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