Recording Review: Le Ray au soleil

Le Ray au soleil: Musica alla corte pavese dei Visconti (1360-1402)
La Fonte Musica, Michele Pasotti, dir. ORF « Alte Musik » SACD 3124 [SACD hybrid], 2011.

Although I don’t intend to make it a regular habit, this month I have decided to review a recent recording of medieval songs from around the year 1400. Late last year, Michele Pasotti kindly sent me a copy of the first CD issued by his ensemble la fonte musica“Le Ray au soleil” (The Ray of the Sun). As other writing projects have been cleared out of the way, I am now in a position to return this favour in one of the few ways I can and provide a brief review on this recording. Naturally, I write without fear or favour, as a musicologist who has engaged in and taught critical listening for several years, and someone who is fairly familiar with recordings of this late medieval music from the last thirty years or so.

The repertoire that Pasotti and his ensemble of talented musicians tackle in an almost effortless fashion includes some of more difficult works in the late medieval repertoire, including songs by composers such as Philipoctus de Caserta (Filippotto da Caserta), Ciconia, Hasprois, Johannes de Janua, and the incomparable Jacob de Senleches, all in the style that is today often called the ars subtilior (the more refined practice). The program includes songs which have been connected in one way or another with the Visconti of Milan and Pavia in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. While there have been similar programs on past recordings, this recording’s focus on the Visconti court brings together a range of styles of music that include an instrumental piece (no. 4. Isabella) and several songs in the ‘native’ Italian idiom of the Trecento, including Bartolino da Padova’s Alba colonba (no. 3), Niccolò da Perugia’s La fiera testa (no. 1), Paolo da Firenze’s Soufrir m’estuet (no. 5), and Antonello da Caserta’s Più chair che’l sole (with a contratenor part by Matteo da Perugia) (no. 7) and Del glorioso titolo d’esto duce (no. 15). Naturally, Pasotti had to exclude other works associated with the Visconti (eg. Jacopo da Bologna’s Lux purpurata/ Diligite justitia), but nonetheless takes the opportunity to mention these in his extensive program notes.

There are several things that strike me about this recording. Tenor Gianluca Ferrarini’s solo rendition of the recently discovered song De vertù vidi (no. 8) is spellbinding, his clear and expressive delivery of the text perfectly balanced by his mastery of the musical substance of this song’s lively melodic line. In Puisque je fumeux, Ferrarini brings out the playfulness that lies at the heart of this text that is associated with the literary Society of Fumeur’s at the court of King Charles VI of France through an almost insane array of tempos and vocal attacks/timbres.  The extra-musical reference to smoking at the end of this song (sorry no spoilers here) is apt to delight anyone with a modern understanding of French, though not so medievalists who see the reference to smoking in this and other songs more as a playful reference to angry affectations of the literary elite in late fourteenth-century Paris (the “angry young men” of the fourteenth century?).

Alena Dantcheva’s vocal rendition of Philipoctus’s En attendant (no. 2) is both precise and expressive. Less effective in the performance of this work is the orchestration: the accompaniment provided by Pasotti on the lute and Marta Graziolino on the harp at the beginning provides what is in my mind an ideal ensemble when instruments are used in this music. (I will not trouble the reader with a discussion of the “a cappella heresy” here.) Even the addition of vieles (fiddles) and a recorder is bearable. But the tutti (without sackbut) orchestration in the refrain is less pleasing to my ears since the resulting wash of sound removes the clarity of line that this music demands. For the same reason, I am not convinced by the use of tutti orchestration in the first and last numbers (including some fine playing of the sackbut by Ermes Giussani). This style of tutti, popularised by another well known ensemble that performs this repertoire, is only effective when the vocal ensemble is ramped up to match the wash of instrumental colour.

The third singer featured on this recording, Francesca Cassinari, also shines – indeed all three vocalists are some of the finest I have heard for this repertoire. Cassinari brings a theatrical side to her performance of the vocal line of Ciconia’s Sus un’ fontayne through her effective modulation of vocal timbre and expressive exploration of the line. The instrumentation adopted for this song is exemplary and the tuning of the vieles with each other and Cassinari is exquisite. Again it is clear that the calibre of instrumentalists matches that of the vocalists. Pasotti’s crisp and fluid lute playing is noted on several occasions, especially in the Isabella and in the instrumental rendition of Ciconia’s Una panthera (no. 11). The pairing of recorder (Marco Domenichetti) and lute on the upper line, a combination that might bring many other ensembles to their knees due to the technical demands of tuning between these two instruments, delights, especially the perfect synchronicity of rhythm and line.

The packaging for this disk is at first deceptive: all texts are printed on the foldout cover with German translations. The printed program notes seem abbreviated. I was however relieved to discover a note at the end of printed program notes directing me to a PDF on the CD that can be accessed using a computer. In this PDF I found the missing notes on each song in the program and translations of their texts in English, French, German and Italian. One thing I do not understand, however, is why wasn’t a larger font used in these PDF notes? Even on a large computer monitor like the one I am currently using, my poor eyes struggle to read the small font. On the other hand, the recording company clearly realised the benefit of providing additional illustrations in the PDF, featuring pictures of the Visconti Castello at Pavia and a page from the famous Modena manuscript (Modena, Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, α.M.5.24).

I must admit that as someone who has always possessed a critical stance towards the “Visconti” hypothesis argued by certain musicologists, Pasotti’s notes offer an evenhanded approach in which the author freely admits that some of the songs on the CD may not have been written for the Visconti but against them (or at least directed at a particular Visconti). In terms of economy of scale, I can understand why a recording company might not have wished to print all of Pasotti’s notes in favour of consigning them to a PDF. In my view, it is a great shame that consumers seldom enjoy the extensive sleeve notes that once graced recordings (I am thinking in particular of several of the recordings of David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London from the 1970s). Although ORF seems to have pitched their physical packaging at German-speaking consumers, I wonder if a more effective use of resources (and perhaps more royalties for the artists) might have been achieved if the program notes were shipped (in a slightly larger font) just on the CD?

It is a tall order that Pasotti sets for himself in choosing a program of so many well known, and now frequently recorded, songs. That la fonte musica has not only mastered this difficult repertoire but stamped their own interpretation upon it alone recommends this recording. The CD also features some infrequently recorded songs, including Matteo da Perugia’s Ne me chaut (no. 6), Antonello de Caserta’s Più chair che’l sole (no. 7) and Johannes de Janua’s Ma douce amour (no. 12). Although I take issue with frequent lack of a flattened fourth degree in the vocal line Ma douce amour, the interpretation of the difficult musica ficta, and indeed tempo, in Ne me chaut is close to perfect. Hearing a new recording of this last seldom-released song is a highlight of this disk.

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