This is a persuasive and very stylishly-executed collection of German instrumental music (keyboard and plucked strings) from the fifteenth century. Swiss born Corina Marti plays a claviciterium (an upright, vertically strung, precursor of the harpsichord) by Emile Jobin after a late 15th century original – unknown maker. Polish Michal Gondko plays both a six-course lute in A by Szymon Gasienica and Marcus Wesche after pictorial sources; and a four-course gittern (a small precursor of the guitar – gut-strung and plucked with a quill, originating a century earlier) in C by George Stevens after Hans Ott, mid 15th century.
Most of the 14 composers represented here are obscure. Many will be entirely unknown – even to specialists of the period. As well as 15 truly anonymous works (out of the CD's total of 26 pieces), a couple (by Boumgartner?, [tr.10] and Tyling? [tr.5]) are of (virtually) unknown provenance. Works by Binchois and Dufay are more familiar. But nevertheless somewhat recherché. This should not put you off at all. The music presented here is in turn compelling and touching, poignant and outward going.
What's more, Marti and Gondko play with a drive that's nicely matched with a sensitivity to the delicacies of the music that's neither fey nor in any way boisterous. On other hand, their phrasing and the ways in which they develop melody and timbre are not mundane. It's almost impossible to know how this music would have sounded six hundred years ago. Happily, the artists have consciously avoided the somewhat 'rickety', almost mechanical, sound that such instruments can make. There's still a genuineness to the music-making. But it's the composers' desire to communicate their concerns, sacred and secular clearly and with passion that is accentuated throughout the CD.
Given the enormous changes through which both music itself and musical instruments were going in the 15th century, the concentration of themes and the way they are handled is remarkable in this collection – as though a well-established approach to love, worship and daily life had always been. This probably helps the way Marti and Gondko have been able to project the sounds in a sober, unexcited yet convincing context.
This must be due in no small part to the close relationship in technique and sound of these plucked instruments. The combinations which we hear in these pieces are invariably euphonious, gentle, slightly withdrawn without being tentative; yet at times demonstrative (listen to the anonymous "Preambulum super D" [tr.11], for example… clear, clean, rhetorical almost; yet concise and directed: too much ornamentation would have blurred the impact of the piece. Too little engagement drawn its teeth. What Marti and Gondko have done in this recording is arrive at an intimacy which is at the same time detached enough to allow the essence of the music, rather than the peculiarities of its sonorities, to be as plain to us as it must have been to (courtly) audiences listening to it for the first time when played – probably by professional musicians. Consequently the twists and turns of "Redeuntes in La" and "Modocomo bystu die rechte" [tr.s13,14], for example, come across as intense and purposeful, not meandering and melismatic. Melody still counts. But it's melody closely bound to the texture of the instruments; not melody for its own sake, or because it reminds us of a known catch, phrase or song.
Marti and Gondko have ordered their program chronologically. They also start with the best known composer, Dufay (1397-1474), work through some less easily-dated anonymous works and end with pieces by Adolf Blindhamer (c.1473-1532), who was born in the year after Dufay died and died himself possibly as late as 1532, certainly not before 1520. Hans Buchner (1483-1538) and Hans Kotter (1485-1541) also come at the end of the period, when the styles and expected accomplishments of musicians were markedly different from those of Dufay's generation. Not least because their composing lives co-incided in part with the Reformation.
This is not the only reason why there is a complete absence of "sameness" on this CD. Each piece has something special or distinctive about it. To have brought that out is the gift of these two players. Their approach is as businesslike and concentrated as it is expressive. Listen, for example, to the way "Ich stond an einem morgen" [tr.18] not only makes its own way with neither hesitation nor haste, but also contrasts with "All ding mit radt" [tr.19]. The latter is closer in spirit to an Elizabethan meditation. Yet each is performed with meticulous attention to detail in such a way that it seems as though the players either wrote the music themselves and were hearing it for the first time (there is a sense of wonder, restraint because of awe, respect) – or almost wanted it to seem as though we the listener wrote it! Nor is anything taken too seriously… the very next work, "Enzindt pin ich" [tr.20] is as jolly and animated as it is actually self-controlled.
So here is a coherent selection of pure and unpretentious instrumental music from which every nuance is drawn; yet performed in such a way that one knows there is more of substance waiting to be taken on subsequent hearings. Noble (edel) indeed. As persuasive, technically-superb and expressively very sensitive performers it seems obvious that Marti and Gondko expect you will listen again. A CD that thus heartily recommends itself.
Copyright © 2008, Mark Sealey