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Firenze 1350: A Medieval Florentine Garden
Sollazzo Ensemble/Anna Danilevskaia
Recording details not given
AMBRONAY AMY055 [57:21]

It was ‘The Calamitous Century’, as Barbara Tuchman called it in her book A Distant Mirror: the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasants’ Revolt, excessive rain in the 1320s and 1340s resulting in a series of famines, the Papal Schism and some religious fanatics, and of course the Great Plague which in 1350 was devastating all Europe. If you know your Boccaccio, you will have read how those who could afford it would take off to the remote countryside in an attempt to avoid the worst. Boccaccio’s young things also take music with them, and their evenings are spent in dancing and singing and telling the famous tales. So it was also an age of great creativity and imagination. Think of Petrarch (d. 1374), think of Giotto, and think also of the Gothic cathedrals in the elaborate ‘decorated’ style of the first half of the century. This, then, is the background to the music on the present disc.

Oddly enough, the opening track, a political motet Godi Firenze by Paolo da Firenze, can be dated precisely at 1406. It is a little misleading to think that the composers represented here were all at their most prolific in 1350. The ‘main man’ is Francesco Landini, most of whose 197 surviving pieces have been recorded on various albums and in various anthologies. It is good then to also discover music by his Italian contemporaries. They all lived at the same time as Guillaume de Machaut and the next generation (for example, Solage), whose shadow does sometimes linger over these Italians, but whose sense of melody and rhythm were mostly quite different.

So who were these other composers? Their careers are, needless to say, haphazardly documented. Don Paolo da Firenze has left us eleven madrigals and the complex polyphony of the Benedicamus domino recorded here. From the pen of Giovanni da Firenze, also known as Giovanni da Cascia, we have twenty-one compositions; Per larghi prati, a caccia, is most recorded. Of the work of Bartolino da Padua (Frater Bartolinus), we have no fewer than forty pieces. Don Vincenzo da Rimini has left us six pieces. Lorenzo da Firenze, whose rare and extraordinary three-voiced caccia A poste messe ends the disc, was undoubtedly the finest; one of an earlier generation of composers, he was survived by seventeen compositions.
Incidentally, the notes refer to Landini as ‘Francesco degli Organi, dit aussi Landini’ because he was famed as a brilliant keyboard player although, amazingly, blind from birth.

I rate the disc as Highly Recommended – something I do not do lightly – because of the quality and beauty of the performances. Let me offer a few examples. Per larghi prati for much of its time captures the mood of a hunt with an exciting two-part canon; when the hunters settle out of the sun into the shade, the music quietens. The group adheres to it very convincingly and sensitively. Landini’s famous Quest fanciull amor is given as the contrafactum Creata fusti o vergine Maria in honour of the Virgin Mary. So, rather than a lively dance number, it is slow and given a most moving, suitably delicate and spiritual air. It is this differing characterisation of some of the songs which I find so clever and so musical.

Vincenzo de Rimini’s Ay schonsolato is offered as an angry lament, with its incredibly convoluted and virtuosic lines. Tenor Vivien Simon is utterly convincing and dramatic. Most of the other texts concern despairing lovers and lost loves. Sadly, no poets are named.

I have not yet mentioned the beauty and sensitivity of the a capella performance of Johannes de Florentia’s melting Quand’amor in which the lower parts vocalise below the top texted part. Then we have Quando la stella by Giovanni where the vocal part is entwined like ivy around the instruments.

Ah, the instruments! Like many European early music ensembles, the performers use them liberally but carefully. If you know the recordings by Malla Punica under Pedro Memelsdorf, you will have a rough idea of the Sollazzo Ensemble’s approach. There is a similarly elastic sense of rhythm and dynamics, and instrumentalists tend to improvise swirling descants and inner parts even around the voices. But the Solazzo Ensemble is never as extreme or radical.

The instruments are fiddle, vielle, lute, organetto (which Giovanni da Firenze and Landini were both famed for playing) and a psaltery. Anna Danielevskaia, the Ensemble’s imaginative director, also plays a fiddle and vielle. They are given three tracks of their own.

The recording was clearly made in a church, with an excellent acoustic. The disc is in a wonderfully slim-line, space-saving card casing. All texts are clearly given and translated. There are photographs and performer biographies, and there is Danielevskaia’s useful essay. (My only disappointment is that the disc weighs in at less than an hour, so one feels a little short-changed by most modern reckonings.)

Gary Higginson

PAOLO da Firenze (c.1335-c.1436)
Godi Firenze [3:42]
Benedicamus domino [2:19]
DONATA di Firenze (fl c.1350-1370)
Come‘l potes’ tu far [3:39]
Francesco LANDINI (c.1325-1397)
Adiou adiou [3:22]
Creata fusti o vergine fiore (contrafactum) [5:29]
Conviens’ a fede [2:51]
GIOVANNI da Firenze (fl.c.1350)
Per larghi prati [3:13]
Quando la stella [4:17]
BARTOLINO da Padova (c.1365-1405)
Quel sole che nutrica’l gentil fiore [6:16]
Benedicamus Domino [2:16]
Benedicamus Domino – Messine manuscript [1:49]
ANDREA da Firenze (c.1415)
Non piu doglia ebbe Dido [4:52]
VINCENZO da Rimini (fl. c.1350)
Ay schonsolato [3:13]
JOHANNES de Florentia (c.1370)
Quand’amor [2:13]
LORENZO da Firenze (c.1372)
A poste messe [2:58]

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