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.

Gesualdo: Quinto Libro di Madrigali (ECM New Series 2175)

Gesualdo Madrigali

Carlo Gesualdo
Quinto Libro di Madrigali

The Hilliard Ensemble
Monika Mauch soprano
David James countertenor
David Gould countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 2009 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

If my grief pains you,
only you, my soul,
can turn it all to joy.

On first hearing madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), English writer Aldous Huxley proclaimed, “These voices—they’re a kind of bridge back to the human world.” In the mouths of the Hilliard Ensemble they certainly are. Baritone Gordon Jones cites the Prince of Venosa as a touchstone of the ensemble’s performing repertoire. And so, it is with practiced appreciation that they return to it as they take on his Fifth Book of Madrigals of 1611 in its entirety. Gesualdo finished his Sixth and final Book (he would leave fragments of an unfinished Seventh) in the same year, penning his first in 1594. Of the Fifth, Jones says, “The whole collection constitutes a gallery of dramatically lit portraits of human emotions with a heavy emphasis on the extremes of joy and despair.” On this note, the addition of soprano Monika Mauch and countertenor David Gould speaks to the range and color required of those extremes, and in this regard the ensemble emotes splendidly.

One can hardly discuss this music without mentioning its bold, mannerist dissonances. Written as it was by a man who had his wife and her lover murdered when he caught them in flagrante delicto and who subsequently receded into his own psycho-sonic cage, this can be no surprise. Even by today’s standards it rattles us. Yet to characterize Gesualdo’s output by so reductive a summation (dissonance, for example, was part and parcel of the madrigal idiom) would be to ignore the textually sensitive traditions of harmonic expansion upon which he built it. Despite being professedly “ahead of his time,” he was no enigma to his aristocratic contemporaries, being a particular favorite of Queen Christina of Sweden. For every gritty texture he loosed, a smoother one was in attendance, and we do well to remember the equal weight in both pans of the scale.

We have the Hilliard/ECM partnership to thank for already having done the composer justice with a sublime and direct rendition of his Tenebrae Responsories for the Christian Holy Week. Here that same trueness to the melodic line remains, and is so magnified by the bareness of its voices, by which the tortuousness we’ve come to expect lives by a more fluid name. If it lives anywhere, it is in the strange tenderness of Gioite voi col canto, which opens the collection with an autobiographical tinge:

Rejoice in song,
while I weep and sigh,
while tears choke my breath.
Alas, wretched heart of mine,
born for grief alone;
weep, but weep so much
that my mistress may be vanquished
by your tears, and then revert to seeing
my grief and pains in her.

The shifting tectonics of tenor lines and dulcet edge of Mauch’s gilding in the words’ weeping evocation is testament both to Gesualdo’s knack for comingling and to the sensitivity of the singers assembled at Propstei St. Gerold, where these works were so lovingly recorded. The charged weight of Itene, o miei sospiri rekindles these considerations, mixing “bitter weeping” with “loving song” in particularly adroit handling from the Hilliards. O dolorosa gioia falls into the same category of “painful joy,” a core theme of Book Five that finds further traction in Se vi duol il mio duolo. In both of these, the pathos of the text comes through tactfully. Death is another trope, as inescapable in the music as it is in us. From the heartfelt appeal of Occhi del mio cor vita (“Eyes, life of my heart”) and the lovesick resignation of Languisce al fin (“He who parts from his life languishes at last”) to the lachrymose accents of O tenebroso giorno (“O darkest day”), the music is practically dripping with it. Yet not all is so morose in this landscape, for there are also the flora of Felicissimo sonno, a heartfelt appeal to dreams as living threads to a love that cannot flourish in waking, and the intoxications of Correte, amanti, a prova (“Vie, lovers, in speed”) to soothe our weary countenances, to say nothing of the optimism that bids us a fond farewell in T’amo, mia vita (“I love you, my life”).

A small handful of these 21 madrigals stands out. The snaking turns of Mercè grido piangendo (“Have pity on me! I cry weeping”) showcase the coolness of the Hilliard’s peerless blend to the utmost, while the prototypically Gesualdan Tu m’uccidi, o crudele (“You are killing me, o cruel woman”) pulls out all the stops in its affective toolkit, achieving moments of sublime light. Finally, Se tu fuggi, io non resto, with its fluttering vowels and tight syncopations breathes with expert realization, even as its narrative voice bids us leave on the wings of cruelty.

Due to the subject matter and sheer variety of invention, and despite the pitch-perfect performances, this is no mere soundtrack for an idle afternoon. It asks us to steep in its brew until we begin to take on a bit of its flavor. Those who find beauty in the Tenebrae may encounter discomfort in these secular woes. But if this discomfort has anything to teach us, it is that the act of living depends on that very thing.

“For the fever of a song” – The Rose Ensemble Blossoms Before a Rapt Audience

(Ensemble photos by Michael Haug)

Sage Chapel, Cornell University
September 24, 2011
8:00 pm

From its initial stirrings the human voice has sought to put the ineffable into words, to shape those words into melodies, and to pass those melodies on to posterity. Although the intrinsic value of this transmission has been irrevocably changed through the digitization of musical production, thankfully we still have groups like The Rose Ensemble willing to do things the old-fashioned way. And while of course their voices can also be found haunting the ever-refracting geographies of iTunes, in concert they plot an entirely different cartography, one that we wish to hold dear in that hermetic cave of memory where pores some nameless scribe who, by the candlelight of our awe, records that which moves us most. Now in its sixteenth year of activity, the Saint Paul, Minnesota-based collective of early music purveyors continues its mission of bringing vastly underrepresented repertoires from bygone eras to the ears of the living. To achieve this, members bring a wealth of scholarly legwork to every project. Over 1000 years and 25 languages infuse their nine recordings, the latest of which, Il Poverello, draws upon Italian Medieval and Renaissance sources in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi and which represents their performance at Cornell’s Sage Chapel on a still-humid Saturday night. If this opening concert was a sign of things to come, then the 2011-12 season promises to be an unforgettable one.

(Sage Chapel)

Before the concert even began, one couldn’t help but be impressed by the artfully crafted notes handed to us at the door. Numbering some 16 pages, they were exemplary in every respect and clearly manifested a steadfast dedication to craft, time, and care. Parallel texts, composer biographies, and a lovely essay that situated the program’s six-century purview in a vast web of miracles and politico-religious intrigue helped illuminate the life of a man so enigmatic that only through the ephemeral vagaries of music-making could such richness be revealed. In The Rose Ensemble’s meticulous tenure, Francis’s mysteries were distilled into a continuous circle of appreciation.

The music was as varied as its theme was unified. From enlivening dances and laude (non-liturgical spiritual songs) to no-less-stirring motets and plainchant, from composers well represented in early music circles (Johannes Ciconia) to those less familiar (Tomaso Graziani), this singular tribute was an unbroken string of hills and valleys. In addition to the seamless blend of voices, we were treated to a bevy of period instruments, including the paper-thin accents of the bowed vielle and rebec; the rounded edges of the recorder, shawm, double-flute; the shaded drones of bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy; and selected percussion, making for a collective sound that, not unlike the tongue of Francis himself, was “peaceable, fiery, and sharp.” These last brought an audible heartbeat to the instrumental interludes and inspired not a few feet to tap along on the chapel’s stone floor. Guest artist Isacco Colombo provided the evening’s most whimsical moments in Domenico da Piacenza’s 15th-century Ballo Anello, for which Colombo beat a tambor (slung drum) with his right hand while blowing a pipe (fife-like wind instrument with only three holes) in his left, looking like the one-man bands of yore.

(Pipe and taborers, as depicted in the 13th-century Cantigas de Santa Maria)

The narrative flow of the concert was further enhanced by readings at selected interstices. These ranged from firsthand accounts of Francis’s features and legendary stigmata to quieter theological reflections and even a recitation of Dante in Italian by Colombo evocative enough to elicit a smattering of applause upon its conclusion.

Among the tapestry of voices were many threads to tug at heart and mind, but in particular sopranos Kathy Lee and Kim Sueoka, whose filigreed loveliness soared above all in the motets’ more knotted passages and achieved a sonorous blend with the tenor lines and the notable anchorage of bass Mark Dietrich. Sueoka was especially arresting in her bird-like rendition of Radiante lumera, an anonymous 14th-century lauda that found her accompanied solely by Ginna Watson on harp. Yet the crowning jewel, if not the crown itself, of the concert was a sequential Stabat Mater sung in modal plainchant and also cradling the harp in its sonic breast. Its soul-piercing emotions leapt with the slow fire of Hildegard von Bingen at her most contemplative.

The blessing and the curse of early music is that we simply don’t know exactly how it sounded at the time of its creation. This sets before any aspiring interpreters the daunting task of reimagining atmospheres and places that exist for the most part on faded manuscripts and in forgotten alcoves. As a longtime listener, I have seen many such groups poke their head only briefly above the surface of obscurity, only to submerge back into it. Anyone who has heard The Rose Ensemble either live or on disc would surely flock to lift them from the waters should such an unlikely possibility ever present itself. Their deft blend of professionalism (there was not a single musical score in sight) and approachability (the musicians kindly offered demonstrations of their various instruments afterward) sets the bar beyond the reach of most. Not since the groundbreaking endeavors of Ensemble PAN or the Ferrara Ensemble have I been so profoundly affected.

(Jordan Sramek)

Ensemble founder Jordan Sramek couldn’t help but pay humble deference to the beauties and acoustics of Sage during his thanks to staff and audience before an exultant finish, but these paled in comparison to the invocations that animated them. In charting the paths that led to The Rose Ensemble’s name, Sramek has described elsewhere its fragrant namesake as, among other things, a mystical symbol denoting “a portal into celestial worlds.” Nothing could be closer to the truth.

(See this article in its original form at the Cornell Daily Sun.)

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