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CD Review

Figures of Harmony

Songs of Codex Chantilly, c. 1390

  • Trebor:
  • Helas! pitie envers moy dort si fort
  • Se Alixandre et Hector fussent en vie
  • Se July Cesar, Rolant et roy Artus
  • En seumeillant m'avint une vision
  • Passerose de beaute, la noble flour
  • Quant joyne cuer en may est amoureux
  • Philipoctus de Caserta:
  • Par les bons Gedeon et Sanson
  • Il n'est nulz homs
  • De ma dolour
  • En remirant vo douce pourtraiture
  • En atendant souffrir
  • Solage:
  • S'aincy estoit
  • Tres gentil cuer
  • Calextone qui fut
  • Corps femenin
  • Johannes Ciconia:
  • Le ray au soleyl qui dret som kar meyne
  • Sus une fontayne en remirant
  • La fiamma del to amor che gia me strinze
  • Jacob Senleches:
  • Fuions de ci, fuions
  • Tel me voit
  • La harpe de melodie
  • Matteo da Perugia:
  • Rondeau-refrain
  • Pres du soloil deduissant s'esbanoye
  • Baude Cordier: Tout par compas suy composes
  • Antonio da Cividale: Jo vegio per stasone
  • Magister Grimace: Se Zephirus (Se Jupiter)
  • Johannes Suzoy: Pictagoras, Jabol et Orpheus
  • Gacien Reyneau: Va t'en, mon cuer, aveuc mes yeux
  • Johannes Alanus: Sub arturo plebs vallata/Fons citharizancium/In omnem terram exivit
  • Rodericus: Angelorum psalat
  • Guido de Lange: Or voit tout en aventure
  • Magister Egidius Augustinus: Roses et lis ay veu en une fleur
  • Anonymous:
  • Adieu vous di, tres doulce compaynie
  • Lamech, Judith et Rachel de plourer
  • Le mont Aon de Thrace, Doulz pais
  • Bobik blazen
  • Chanconeta tedescha tenor
  • Constantia
  • Chanconeta tedescha tenor
  • Istanpitta Isabella
  • Passerose flours excellente
  • Principio di virtu
  • Medee fu en amer veritable
  • En Albion de fluns environee
Ferrara Ensemble/Crawford Young
Arcana A382 4CDs 58:20+73:20+60:35+67:46
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It was German musicologist Ursula Günther (1927-2006) who described the rhythmically more sophisticated, more complex, indeed subtler music of the late fourteenth century – particularly in Southern France (especially Avignon) and Spain – as ars subtilior. Although some scholars prefer to put ars subtilior in a subcategory of the earlier ars nova, no-one can doubt that the later music builds on and renders more refined what the generation of Machaut and Landini had achieved. It's also been speculated that the likely audience for ars subtilior was that of a small and highly specialized set of connoisseurs. Indeed, Richard Hoppin accentuates the confluence between such a small listenership and planned refinement of rhythm, melody and notation; he suggests the term ars subtilissima, averring, "not until the twentieth century did music again reach the most subtle refinements and rhythmic complexities of the manneristic style."

The three chief sources for the genre are the Chantilly Codex, the Modena Codex and the Turin Manuscript. This four-CD set from Arcana (part of the independent OUTHERE music group) was made over a period of 15 years by the Ferrara Ensemble. The Ensemble was founded in 1983 in Basel (and led) by American lutenist and musicologist Crawford Young. The original manuscript(s) of the Chantilly Codex are held in the museum at the Château de Chantilly in Chantilly, Oise. The majority of the 112, all polyphonic, works dates from between 1350 and 1400. So these four CDs contain 44 (or well over a third of the total) representative samples of the music from the latter end of this significant phase of musical development.

The set contains works by over two thirds of the named composers who are known to have contributed (Machaut, Vaillant, Symonis, des Molins, Goscalch, Andrieu and Cuvelier are not represented here). The Chantilly Codex includes examples of many of the more current (courtly) dances from the second half of the fourteenth century… ballades, rondeaus, virelais, and isorhythmic motets. Some of the latter are amazingly intricate and complex. Their notation really has to be seen to be appreciated. Indeed a good source for this – and the Codex in general – is "French Secular Compositions of the Fourteenth Century" by Willi Apel (1970, American Institute of Musicology and more likely to be found reproduced on line than as a current paper publication). Sources for each composition appear in the track listings for each CD.

The balance struck so successfully by Young and the Ferrara Ensemble is that between confidence, projection, a sense of self-possession and uncluttered expression on the one hand. And an implicit acknowledgement of the music's special place and significant advances, albeit more cerebral than hearty on the other. Then, when you take into account that probable smaller circulation, these performers must be credited with a remarkably down-to-earth approach, for all the music's refinement. There is neither fuss nor exaggeration in their performing styles. They make no attempt to overplay the ways in which the music is as intricate and subtle as in fact it is. They seem to prize the act of letting its lines, linguistic playfulness and introverted harmonies speak for themselves. Nothing, though, is missing. A wholly satisfying listening experience.

Given the fact that 15 named or known composers are represented here, and that there are almost as many pieces by anonymous figures (from the period), lack of variety is never a risk. Some tracks are purely instrumental; others for solo voice, or few. There are also more voluminous, fuller, pieces. Those arranged by the Ferrara Ensemble's director, Crawford Young, are good arrangements, unobtrusively worked. And it was Young who prepared the actual performing editions here. At the same time, there is a continuity of purpose which finds its way into performances actually recorded over so long a timespan (1994 to 2009).

The Ferrara Ensemble's personnel changed over the course of these recordings; in fact the recordings are dedicated to three who have died. But a pool of 17 performers can claim credit for the nevertheless consistent, and consistently excellent standard. In addition to faithfulness to the score, source and tensions between styles which budded in the decade before 1400, these performers exude a confidence that they have absorbed the idioms sufficiently well to portray and purvey the spirit of the music and its social and psychological context. The (sub)titles given to these four CDs ("Ballades…", "En doulz chastel de Pavie", "Fleurs de vertus", "Corps Femenin") would be enough to suggest the vibrancy of music creation: parting, longing, admiration (particularly in mythological realms), nature, and music itself predominate. But the perhaps less self-assured tone, the almost gauche relationship between the creator and the world which pervades music of the previous generations is entirely absent. And the Ensemble reflects this greater confidence and sense of purpose.

After listening to each CD one is left feeling drawn into the world of which these composers clearly felt so much in command. Subtler their execution may have been – even the ideas and emotional responses; but the Ferrara Ensemble pushes the music forward with a will and an assumption that such robust responses are natural, almost inevitable at times. Compare this with music from just 50 years earlier where wonder and perplexity predominated. Without rendering the music in any way matter-of-fact, mundane, or allowing its unfolding to be perfunctory, these performers have almost excised – certainly eclipsed – the romantic in favor of the appropriately declamatory and logically expositional.

Even this approach allows for an immersion on the listener's part that is extremely enjoyable. It's likely that the majority of these works will be unfamiliar. Yet their tone and the world which they illuminate is not. One soon grows used to the scope of music. Works on the four CDs last from under a minute in length to almost 13. The performers also bring out the music's own internal logic; for it increasingly references the world in which it was written in new and exciting ways.

The acoustic of the church of Saint Germanus, Seewen in Switzerland supports the tenderness yet confident and assuredly directed sound aimed for (and reached) by the Ferrara Ensemble. Given the fact that the recordings on these four CDs were made over such a long stretch of time, the recordings themselves have been made remarkably consistently. The booklet that comes with them contains the full texts in French (and Latin) with English translations. But is otherwise a little difficult to navigate, and to progress from the general to the specific in what for many will be unfamiliar territory. But these are important works expertly performed. Although several items from the Codex are otherwise available, none is so extensive; what's more to have them grouped like this, and so persuasively sung and played makes this a CD set to be sought out and appreciated.

Copyright © 2015, Mark Sealey