There were two Popes who took the name 'Benedict XIII' – one, a member of the Roman Orsini family, reigned in the 1720s. The one who concerns us here (Pedro Martínez de Luna) lived long – from 1328 to 1423! He was Pope for almost 25 years (from 1394 to 1417) in Avignon during the years of Schism. Whatever its negative effects on the church, the arts surely benefited from the Schism: Petrarch is perhaps the most notable example. And in music, the apparent disinterest of the papal chapel while in Rome was at first transformed into a substantial enthusiasm for the experimentation of the Ars Nova. Although conservative elements within the cardinals' ranks quickly forbade such adherence by the exiled church to the avant garde, composers writing at the time chose to ignore such interdicts and continued nevertheless to write innovative music such as we hear on this welcome disc from Capella de Ministrers.
Inspirational to these composers, of course, was the music of Machaut – particularly his 'Mass to the Virgin' from the middle of the century. So much of an inspiration was Machaut's inventive balance of tradition and innovation that it attracted many imitators. His influence is perhaps best heard here in the Agnus Dei of the Mass. Indeed the development of the Ars Nova tradition, the Ars Subtilior, was centered on Benedict's Avignon. The majority of such 'more subtle' music with its greater rhythmic complexity and refinement consisted of secular songs… ballads, virelais and canons, although this delightful disc also contains a mass ('coram Papa'), of whose movements two (the Gloria by de Peliso, and the Credo by Orles) are by known, named composers.
Notation changed too with the inclusion of 'red notes' for 'coloration'; they indicated a reduction of note valued by a third. There was playfulness: some composers constructed their scores in the shapes of instruments, for example. Hence Jacob Senleches' (fl.1382/1383-1395) 'Harpe de melodie' was notated in the shape of a harp. The sources for this anthology are manuscripts now at Chantilly, Modena, Reina, Apt, Ivrea, Barcelona and Valencia.
From the first notes of this hour-long and cleanly-recorded Licanus CD, the listener knows they are in for something delicate, beautiful and very full of refinement. The atmosphere is that of restrained melancholy, reflection, self-aware gentility and devotion. There is variety in the instruments used for each track… vielhas, a carillon, gothic harp and zanfoña (hurdy gurdy) as well as flutes, organ and harpsichord. Add a non-intrusive earthy and rather refined folksong-like sound and the experience is consistently very enjoyable indeed. There is no lagging. The pace and pacing kept up by Capella de Ministrers is somewhat redolent of the performing style of the likes of Musica Reservata – with welcome greater latter-day poise. The choir comprises the nine-strong Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana; countertenor José Hernández Pastor is at times a little less secure (either that or plenty of vibrato) than soprano, Pilar Esteban, whose voice is well on the clear side of piercing. Such styles all make sense, though, given the forceful, tenderly acute texts to which most of the pieces here are set:
Ma douce amour et ma sperance
Je vous creant de bon coer vray
Que de ce que vous fins fiance
Jusqu'a la mort bien atendray…
Not that there's a hint of roughness round the edges. Nor indeed under-preparedness. But something genuine and pleasingly spontaneous without self-consciousness or artifice in singers and instrumentalists alike. Quite an achievement. The sparseness and immediacy of the way in which Fuions de ci, for instance, unfolds is very telling and, one might like to think, is not that far – in tempo, texture and timbre – from how those first generations of performers would have performed it and from how listeners may well have sat simply engaged in its simple and rather wan beauty.
There can be a temptation with pieces like En ce gracieux temps to allow rhythms to inveigle their way into the aspects of the music on which such enthusiastic musicians as these insist. Not here. Those pieces which are driven by duple or triple time (which includes certain movements – the wonderfully ornate Kyrie of the Mass, for example) have an exemplary naturalness in their performance by these musicians. Instead of tiring the listener, they invite repeats. Nor is it that the percussion and tuned percussive instruments are held back. Just that they take their rightful place in the recorded texture. Nor yet is appropriate excitement sacrificed: Apollinis eclipsatur is a really tense piece and the pulls and resolutions between its ideas expertly explored. Similarly enticing is Gaude flori virginali, again a piece performed with command and spontaneity. The kind of sound and evolution of metrical exaltation that begs to be repeated as soon as it's over. A splendid conclusion to a splendid anthology.
By similar token the singing is invariably sweet and yet just on the spontaneous side of driven. It's as though these artists have been very familiar with all of this music for a very long time, and have justifiably great pleasure now in offering today's interpretation of it to willing and receptive listeners. If this repertoire is already a favorite, here you'll find fresh and engaging renditions to stimulate. If you're unfamiliar with it, this is likely to be a superb introduction… genuine, spirited and highly professional.
So this is a welcome collection of late Medieval (indeed the Ars Subtilior represented the onset of the Renaissance) secular song. It's well-performed and presented although the translation of the relatively slim accompanying descriptive and explanatory liner notes into English is a little unpolished and lacking in places; the font of the three paragraphs detailing which instruments were used is so small that a magnifying glass is required. The texts are printed in five languages, including Valencian – and of course English. But don't let that put you off getting hold of a special and especially well-performed collection of fourteenth century music. Well done Licanus! Thoroughly recommended.
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey