Reinforcing the aforementioned eclectic nature of this series, this week’s selection comes from the Italian Renaissance. Actually, it’s a quite modern taken on music written during the Renaissance. Here, Rolf Lislevand, a leading Baroque and Renaissance lutenist, leads an ensemble of early music performance specialists through stirring renditions on centuries-old music. (I emphasize “performance specialists,” as there’s often a distinct difference between performers and researchers in academia – a topic I’ll likely return to in the near future.) As with Manu Katché’s Third Round, this was a completely blind purchase, having known neither the main performer nor any of the pieces – only the style. While many early music recordings can be hit or miss, I considered this worth the chance for two reasons:
1. It’s part of ECM New Series, the classical branch of ECM.
2. It includes vocalists Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Anna Maria Friman, two-thirds of Trio Mediaeval. I blindly purchased their Folk Songs – a collection of Medieval Scandinavian songs – this past spring and thoroughly enjoy it.
The instrumentation varies throughout, with particular feature on plucked strings. It includes lutes (many, many lutes), nyckelharpa, clavichord, organ, percussion, voice, vihuela de mano, triple harp, and more. Not every instrument is used for every number; this helps keep the ensemble sounding fresh for the album’s entirety. As mentioned above, much of the music comes from the Italian Renaissance, specifically the Veneto region (north). In listening to the recording and reading the liner notes (written by Lislevand himself, and directed toward a more musicologically-informed reader, perhaps unintentionally), it’s quickly evident that all involved are very historically informed. They interpret the music not only as well-rehearsed performers but they also offer a musicological rigor. (This goes beyond simply using an urtext edition!)
Furthermore, what maintain the listener’s interest are not only the technical or the intellectual aspects, but the visceral. This album is FUN! For those familiar with Renaissance music, you likely know that many texts discuss the music’s – often fun – role in court life. However it’s often hard to sense much fun when listening to it. (Rigid interpretations of transcriptions and/or arrangements are often the weapon of choice.) Diminuito, on the other hand, helps Renaissance music live up to the hype. The ensemble, under Lislevand’s leadership, take liberties and focus heavily on improvisation, something often discussed academically but forgotten in “practice” (i.e., historical reconstruction). Much like jazz standards, the pieces are often given some variation of the “head-solo-head” treatment. Also, Lislevand takes liberties with the compositions, often combining multiple pieces to create new arrangements. My personal favorites, and those that perhaps best exemplify Lislevand’s approach, are “Petit Jacquet/Quinta Pars” and the whirlwind “La Perra Mora.” Simply close your eyes and you’ll feel like you’re at a soirée with the local nobility! (500 years ago, that is.)
Breathing fresh air into centuries-old music, Lislevand & Co. prove that Renaissance music was lively and full of spirit. Most of all, they prove it is still relevant!