Monika Mauch/Nigel North: Musical Banquet (ECM New Series 1938)

Musical Banquet

Musical Banquet

Monika Mauch soprano
Nigel North lute
Recorded May 2005, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Named for an anthology of lute songs compiled in 1610 by Robert Dowland (1586-1641), son of John (1563-1626), Musical Banquet offers up exactly that. Lutenist Nigel North joins soprano Monika Mauch in an expert dovetailing of musicality, detail, and, above all, emotive power. Performing such songs is no small task. The separation of lutenist from the voice that must once have issued from the same—the result of a long recital tradition—means that singer and accompanist must balance poetry and setting with poise. One hears both throughout this spaciously engineered recording, which is to say that Mauch and North bring the precise intonation of classical rigor in harmony with the raw affect of the words.

To that end, Mauch’s diction is so crisp and finely scored that, were one to snap it anywhere, it would break off in cleanest lines. Whether bound by the tenderness of “Passava Amor su arco desarmado” (Love walked by unarmed) or freed by the self-pity of “Far from triumphing court,” respectively the program’s opening and closing songs, Mauch navigates a veritable maze of lovelorn dimensions with gorgeous uplift. North’s cogent luting is equally alluring, a pleasure to behold in its adaptive variety. Between their covers flip beautiful pages—some tattered, others gilded—dripping with sentiment.

In addition to French and English songs, the repertoire includes more from Italy by Giulio Caccini (1551-1618), as well as a handful of anonymous examples from Spain. Each stream has its own quality. The French songs are like necklaces, beads held true by strings of regard. The English, especially those by Father Dowland (Robert avoided inclusion of his own), weave contradictory tapestries. The lyrics might at one moment invite with a flirtatious lilt (“Lady, if you so spite me”), while at the next steep the narrative voice in claustrophobia. In the latter vein, consider your ears fortunate should you ever encounter a more heartrending rendition of his timeless “In darkness let me dwell.”

As for the Italian, and especially the ever-popular “Amarilli mia bella” (My fair Amaryllis), they tend to favor brevity, exerting all the more inertia for it. The Spanish encompass Mauch’s depth of range, making full use of her dynamic control. Furthermore, they challenge North to maintain intrigue by switching one backdrop after another in a gallery of rhythms and styles. Such colors nuance every mystery behind the words. Throughout them all, a peppering of lute solos by John Dowland is the glue that binds. Each is a gorgeous, multifaceted thing, carved with the geometrical precision of a Celtic knot.

Not only is the music of this collection brimming with allure; it also comes to us by the art of two peerless early music interpreters. Mauch’s singing combines the innocence of an Emma Kirkby with the passion of an Arianna Savall into something uniquely her own. North, for his part, looks longingly in the mirror and draws messages from the past. All it requires is a cadence or snatch of melody, and our hand has already been taken, led through a landscape where bodies once danced before they were buried to nourish the trees that to this day grow in their place.

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