This is not the first time that the complete works of Ciconia have been available on a double CD. The Huelgas Ensemble set about the project on their own; you can hear the results on Pavane (7345/7). They went in for regular doses of wind instruments - bombards, shawms and sackbuts for instance - on three CDs and thirty-eight tracks. The results are mixed. For myself this box set is by far the better of the two.
Ciconia has been recorded on single discs and anthologised. It’s just worth mentioning a few. One of the first was the Studio der Frühen Musik under Thomas Binkley on EMI Classics Reflex label (CDM 7 63442 2) in 1972 but re-released. Then much later, in 1983 Alla Francesca and Alta recorded nineteen pieces, some instrumentally on Opus 111 (OPS 30-101). Recently, the complete Motets have become available from Mala Punica under Pedro Memelsdorff (Erato 39874-21661-2) in typically eccentric but evocative performances recorded in 1998. Motets and songs have otherwise been anthologised by groups such as the Orlando Consort and the Dufay Ensemble. One can guess from all this that Ciconia, as this CD tells us is one of the key figures of the middle ages. Yet curiously he is less well known than the older Machaut and the younger Dufay. Indeed Christopher Page on his twenty or so CDs never recorded a note of Ciconia.
The thing that has always struck me about this music is how much more modern this music is even than Binchois or Dufay. There are tunes that repeat with a refrain (Doctorum Principem) there is much sequential writing (Lizandra donna), imitation and echo (Merçe o morte) canonic writing and brilliant hocketing (O Felix Templum). The Italian Ars Nova and French song are represented. Some songs are almost romantic. Some of the French sound English in their luminous tonality (O Rose bella). There are isorhythmic motets and mass settings some of which might remind you of Lionel Power (d.1415). Ciconia is not part of the rhythmically complex Ars Subtilior generation. He is not as intricate as Dufay can sometimes be and Dufay was from a generation later. His emphasis is typically Italian and focuses on memorable melodic lines.
Forty pieces are recorded here and Ricercar have had the excellent idea of using two groups, La Morra for the secular and Diabolus in Musica for the sacred stuff. These groups are not unfamiliar with the repertoire or the record stores.
Much ink was spilt in the old days especially about Ciconia’s identity. It is now known that Ciconia’s father, also a Johannes was a musician and that he was born about 1335. In Gustave Reese’s iconic ‘Music in the Middle Ages’ (Dent, London, 1940) the younger man has just one mention: as Giovanni de Ciconia and with incorrect dates.
His varied career took him around Europe. Having been born in Liège he also worked alongside the mighty in Venice, Rome and Padua and under the pope Boniface IX; hence his varied output and the wide palette of styles.
These are in almost all ways the best and most consistently pleasing performances of his music I have yet met. There is a variety of instrumental and, for that matter, vocal colour. The secular works often use lute, viele and sometimes the curious clavicembalum one of the earliest of keyboard instruments. The latter is even given a solo song I cani sono fuora as well as sometimes accompanying the others. The members of Diabolus in Musica use instruments which demonstrate the more public background to the motets and mass settings. You can hear sackbuts and organ - for instance in the double-texted Venetum/O Petrus antistes inclite written, it appears, for Pietro Marcello possibly for his installation in Padua in November 1409.
Some of the songs are performed purely vocally often when in two parts as in Con lagreme. The texts are mostly anonymous but the delicious O rosa bella - also set by the Englishman John Bedyngham - is by Leonardo Giustinian (d.1446). In Sus un’ fontayne Ciconia quotes text and musical phrases as a homage to his contemporary Philipoctus de Caserta’s iconically complex Et attendant. These performances on CD 1 respect the music more than I have ever noticed before and allow it to flower naturally. Ciconia writes very expressively indeed and these singers recognize the fact and are not frightened to really feel the text through subtle dynamic contrasts and always-thoughtful phrasing. They never make an ugly sound.
Similarly the second CD is sensitively performed with the instrumental changes I mentioned above. Here we have several polytextual works like the isorthymic motet O virum omnimoda in cantus 1 Lux et decus Tranensium in cantus 2 and Beata Nichoilae in the tenor written for the installation of an archpriest of Padua cathedral. It’s a good idea to avail yourself of these texts beforehand and then to follow all three linear way; even better if you are a Latinist, a very difficult job for us in the 21st century as we listen harmonically, in theory from the bass upwards. In the 15th Century they probably listened across; it’s interesting that each line of text does indeed have a chance to speak if only briefly when the other is less active. Antoine Guerber presents it a capella for three male voices. Mala Punica (mentioned above) by contrast transpose it to incorporate a counter-tenor and even add bells and a slide trumpet at a climactic point. The tempo is faster and although I enjoy the performance in many ways, some of the dignity of the motets is lost – something of which Diabolus in Musica can at no point be accused. Equally contrasting is the three-part Gloria performed solemnly by three male voices under Guerber. Alla Francesca perform it up an octave and include a female voice on the top. It almost seems to be not the same piece.
A curious piece I had not met before is the Gloria: Suscipe Trinitatis - one of the longest tracks. The ordinary is set for four voices but the six quite extensive tropes alluding to the Trinity are just for two voices. I can find nothing out about its background.
Inevitably, there are some pieces which are less impressive - particularly some of Mass settings. Then again, just as you wonder if there could be a misattribution along comes a passage which quite clearly offers a Ciconia fingerprint.
O beatum incendium works very well as an organetto solo. This is one instrument, along with the sackbut that can be seen illustrated in contemporary manuscripts and paintings.
The tracks are well planned so that we move between female, male and then mixed voices always keeping the ear interested as you listen through the CD.
All texts are given and well translated. There is a general and quite lengthy essay on the composer by Philippe Vendrix. Another is entitled ‘To my Parents’ in which Jéróme Lejeune fascinatingly tells us how his parents influenced his lifelong passion for Ciconia and medieval culture in general. Michal Michal Gondko writes illuminatingly on the secular works and finally conductor Antoine Guerber briefly addresses the sacred works. We are also offered a list of possible motet dedications and dates. Everything in this generously filled set is nicely presented in a neat box adorned with a gorgeous painting by Jan Van Eyck.
I cannot praise these recordings too highly.
CD 1: Secular Music also contrafacta and canons [77.50]
Una panthera [5.30]; Sus un’ fontayne [7.47];
Chi nel server [3.10]; Le rey au soleyl [1.32];
Caçando un giorno [2.42]; Per quella strada [4.44];
Con lagreme [5.13]; Chi vole amar [2.29]; Dolçe
Fortuna [3.27]; Gli atti col dançar [2.08]; La
fiamma del to amor [3.12]; Py che morir [5.19]; Aler
m’en veus [4.45]; I cani somo fuora [2.46];
Lizandra donna [4.16]; Merçe o morte [3.42]; O
rosa bella [5.52];
Regina gloriosa [1.54]; O petre Christi discipule
[3.15]; O beatum incendium [2.23]; Quod jactatur
[1.33]; Ut per te omnes/ Ingens alumnus [2.56]
CD 2 Sacred works [73.43]
Petrum Marcello Venetum /O Petre antistes inclite
[3.12]; O Virum omnimoda/O lux et decus/O beata Nicholae
[3.14]; Gloria a 3 [3.17]; Credo a 4 [4.05]; Gloria
spiritus et alme a 6 [4.51]; Venecie, mundi splendo/Michael
qui Stena domus [3.09]; Gloria suscipe trinitas [6.43];
O beatum incendium [2.33]; O felix templum [3.33];
Gloria a 9 [3.33]; Doctorum principem/Melodia suavissima/Vir
mitis [2.57]; Gloria No. 1 [3.48]; Credo No. 2
[5.51]; Albane, misse celistus/Albane doctor maxime
[3.11]; Gloria spiritus et alma No. 5 [4.39]; Credo
No. 10 [5.59]; Gloria No. 8 [2.41]; O Padua sidus