Matteo da PERUGIA (c.1370-1417/18)
Dame souvrayne [5.26]
Puisque la mort [11.17]
Le Firmament [3.21]
Se pour loyaulment servir [5.18]
Puisque je sui [9.31]
Lieta Stella [4.00] Dame que j’aym [6.15]
Trover ne puis [5.04]
Sine Nomine [4.30]
Se je me pleing [11.04]
Belle sans per [1.40]
Tetraktys (Stefanie True (soprano); Raphael Höhn (tenor); Claire Piganiol (harps, organetto); Baptiste Romain (vielle))/Kees Boeke (flute, vielles)
rec. Pieve di San Pietro e Presciano (Arezzo), 17-19 June 2016
ETCETERA KTC1918 [71.51]

This could be the 600th anniversary year of the death of this intriguing composer who acts as a bridge from the medieval to the Renaissance in music. Here stands a composer of highly complex works in the ‘ars subtilior’ style. His range also extends to the more simple and melodic songs we associate with Dufay and Binchois and with the first half of the fifteenth century.

There are about 32 known compositions by Matteo and most are found in a manuscript almost entirely devoted to him (Modena Biblioteca Estense Universitaria a M.5.24). There are sacred works and some pieces in Italian but most are in French a language then spoken across all of Europe by the educated classes. Indeed many of the composers associated with this complex style were Italian as for example Antonello da Caserta.

Pieces by Matteo have often been anthologised, for instance by David Munrow (The Art of Courtly Love) who in 1972 recorded the extraordinary ‘Le greygnour bien’ and ‘Andray soulet’, Munrow presented these just for instruments, perhaps thinking the upper line un-vocal. In 1997 a disc of nine pieces completely devoted to Matteo (or Mattheus) was released from the Huelgas Ensemble under Paul van Nevel on Sony (SK62928). The Medieval Ensemble of London recorded all of Matteo’s works in 1977.

Curiously, although Matteo’s day-job was as choirmaster, at the then building site as it were, of Milan Cathedral (the largest cathedral in Europe, I think) he is largely represented in the manuscript as a composer of secular songs. It seems also that the texts, often of despair at the loss or the rejection of a lover, at least as chosen here, were by the composer himself. His musical style is rhythmically highly complex and experimental and at one time thought to be unperformable as was most of the ‘ars subtilior’. Indeed I recall Catherine Bott commenting that Le greygnour bien which she has recorded was one of the hardest pieces she had encountered ... but how should it be performed?

First, I should say that Tetraktys are no strangers to this repertoire having produced three discs of Music from the Chantilly Codex (c.1390) as well as at least three others of 14th century music. Their approach is to use instruments liberally and by that I mean that in the manuscripts, generally only the top line is texted and there are many phrases, which end in long untexted melismas. Kees Boeke describes these as “instrumental melismas” and so the songs become, as it were, orchestrated between the voices (or in Trover ne puis, two voices) and the harps, organetto, flute and vielle. This is not to everyone’s taste. It's interesting that Christopher Page and Gothic Voices who only recorded one work by Matteo, Belle sans per (‘The Spirit of England and France 1’ Hyperion CDA66739 reissued as CDH55281) not only vocalises these melismas but also the untexted underneath parts, so excluding instruments altogether. After Matteo’s music was recorded, as mentioned above in 1977, there were calls to dispose of instruments in favour of a cappella performances. Amazingly, this record by the Medieval Ensemble of London has not yet been transferred to CD. There is a compromise possibility however as predicated by the Ferrara Ensemble under Crawford Young in their recordings of the Codex Chantilly and of Perugia (‘Figures of Harmony’ - a box set on Arcana). Their approach is to have instruments play the lower lines while the voice sings the upper part, un-doubled throughout and also where there is no text to vocalise on a vowel.

Previously Kees Boeke had used Jill Feldman and Zsuzsi Toth as the main soprano but here they use the lovely Stefanie True. Her voice is flexible, versatile and exceptionally wide-ranging in its expressive quality. She clearly shows, through such well-shaped phrasing and use of dynamics, a real understanding of the needs of this music. Let's face it, it’s taken a couple of generations for performers to get a handle on the ‘ars subtilior’ composers but it’s finally happening. If the use of instruments is a problem for you then just bear in mind that the chosen instruments are what we know were used ‘indoors’. Also it's worth remembering that the performances are not routine or rushed, although the tempi are often similar.

Kees Boeke also takes works, which although titled, are untexted and sets them for instruments only. These include two probably by that mysterious master Johannes Césaris (d.1443?), one of the stars of the Dufay generation.

Of the eleven pieces on this disc Se je me pleing is based, both texturally and musically, on a work by Machaut, although in Italian. It is a Ballade as is the lengthy Puisque la mort. Other ‘formes fixes’ represented are the Rondeau as in Se pour loyaulment servir and four virelai. The examples of virelai include the charming Belle sans per with its characteristic, feminine ending, so typical of Matteo and so-called because the emphasis falls on the penultimate syllable.

The booklet is very pleasingly set out. First come the original texts followed by the musical commentary on each song plus a résumé of the text. Then follow a few comments on the three instrumental works followed by biographical information on Matteo, a brief discussion of his works and finally of his ‘Musical Personality’ all written by Philipp Zimmermann. After that has all been rendered into French, Italian and German the translated texts appear side by side. All is enclosed into a cardboard casing.

Wonderful music, fascinatingly presented. We live in fortunate times.
Gary Higginson

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