This is a CD of French music from the time of Philippe the Fair (1268-1314). The concentrated and often dark nature of the music to be heard here reflects the instability of the end of the thirteenth century (the Avignon papacy, population growth and famine). It also represents a variety of musical styles – current and evolving – in that period… the trouvères, motets, rondeaux and dances. The style and approach of the musicians of la Rota are idiomatic, sensitive to current thinking on this music and pleasing on the attentive ear. Theirs is a refreshingly unhurried and caring way of conceiving these performances. Executed as if they had all the time in the world, the music is allowed really to "breathe" and stretch out to occupy the space it should.
Thirteen of the fifteen pieces selected for inclusion here were taken from half a dozen manuscript sources in Paris, London, Rome and Montpellier – notably those of the Bibliothèque Nationale Chansonnier Cangé and Roman de Fauvel collections; the British Library Robertsbridge Codex; and the Montpellier Codex. There are two contemporary estampie arrangements/compositions by Tobie Miller, La Rota's soprano, recorder and hurdy-gurdy player.
So the listening is as varied as the music's playing is accomplished, vivacious and pleasurably pungent. The singing could have been over intense – the repertoire at times demands introspection – but Barnes and Miller in particular opt for detached reflection instead… more appropriate and more convincing. This is not to say that the performances lack life in any way. The idioms of the music are respected. Its tenor is maintained: the business of love and suffering is serious. But it needn't be self-regarding all the time; and isn't here. Subdued, perhaps. And somber. The end result is that such wonderful thoughts as:
N'a droit, en amours, que les biens en sente
Cil qui nuns des maus n'en peut sostenir,
Chargiez toz les m'a en ma penitence
La bel qui ben le me peut merir
acquire a dignity that only adds to their impact. This implies – and indeed it is the case that – the music is being explored from "inside", not in any kind of imitative or stylized way as can happen with music whose concerns are at first sight somewhat remote from those of our own times and when tackled by unsympathetic performers.
It's not all love, though: views of city life – the Jeu-parti dialog poem; satire – allegories from the "Roman de Fauvel"; and philosophical – Heu, Fortuna itself – the dangers of power, and of becoming too attached to power. It's useful to have these pieces here in order to make the point that not all trouvère music is restricted to courtly love. And that which is is also of greater depth and variety than is often realized. Such is clear from the items chosen by La Rota on this disc. They make persuasive advocates for the genre.
Some of the arrangements are not so "spare" and caustic as can be the case with some trouvères performances; indeed the instrumentation is perhaps at times a little over rich. But it's clear that the players are committed to their approach. And it sounds well in that they make what is at times undeniably "downbeat" music very uplifting. Tempi are consistent, constant; textures approachable and a sense of direction and purpose unwavering. One can quibble with some aspects of the accompaniment… the drones and vielle, perhaps. But they are good to hear and atmospheric.
La Rota is a four-person Canadian group, based in Montréal. Founded in 2002 and specializing in historically-informed medieval music, they have already won recognition for their own particular style, which is direct, lively and unfussy. So too the music played here.
The booklet that comes with "Heu Fortuna" is well-produced, has some explanatory/background text and translations to English from French/Latin, though employs a slightly confusing all lower-case font for some titles – with interesting illustrations. So all in all, an inspiring and enjoyable collection of medieval French vocal music, some of which is currently unavailable elsewhere, and all of which is well-performed and makes a welcome contribution to the repertoire. Recommended.
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey