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Folger Consort's Trecento Natale

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Laudario di Cortona: A Medieval Mystery, Ensemble Organum, M. Pérès
The Folger Consort's annual Christmas Concert has been on an international tour for the last several years: Spain (2011), England (2010), Germany (2009), and Spain again (2008). The ensemble, which has won the coveted Ionarts Christmas Concert Award more than once, took us to Italy this year, with a program devoted to trecento Florence, heard on Sunday afternoon. It is odd to have a program centered on that city in that century and not include any music by Francesco Landini, the greatest Italian composer of the era, but no sacred music by Landini has survived, which is a problem for a Christmas concert. Instead Italian polyphony was represented by a couple Mass movements, a rather wonderful Gloria by Johannes de Ciconia and some anonymous pieces.

Ciconia was an oltramontano, but he worked in Italy for most of his life, albeit much of it in the quattrocento. The Gloria, like much of the music of this period, is for three voices in close range with one another, with hocket-like exchanges (pax, pax, pax) and plenty of complicated rhythmic details. The three singers joining the Folger Consort, the women of Trio Eos, gave the piece, and pretty much everything on the program, a delicate airiness, like the lacy wood carving of an altarpiece frame. Soprano Michele Kennedy, on the high part, was a little too transparent at times, while second soprano Jessica Beebe had a more full and rounded sound, still subtle but with substance. Her voice was featured prominently in the double-texted motet O Maria Virgo/O Maria maris stella, one of the more striking pieces along with a two-voice Sanctus, attributed to one Mediolano, with some ingenious hockets, or hiccup-like vocal exchanges of note and rest.

The polyphony was complemented by monophonic music, both learned examples (Verbum bonum et suave, a Latin sequence) and examples of the popular song known as the lauda, as well as some charming examples of the rarely notated instrumental music of the period. The laude go back to the 13th century, part of the wave of popular piety associated with the Franciscan and Dominican movements. The earliest manuscript is the Cortona laudario, from the 13th century, with more florid versions of the genre in two manuscripts from Florence in the 14th century, which I suspect were the sources for this performance. These rather homespun tunes, set to vernacular texts that are often childishly simple, in the way of popular piety, were written down by clerics, or others who understood the system used to notated Gregorian chant.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, For Christmas, Folger Consort performs for the lay people (of 14th-century Italy) (Washington Post, December 17)

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Christmastime is Somewhere Around Here (DMV Classical, December 17)
It is impossible to know exactly how the music is to be performed, rhythmically speaking. Marcel Pérès took Byzantine chant and its cantillation as a model in his recording with Ensemble Organum, while Katarina Livljanić created a second voice to go along with the notated tune in her recording with Ensemble Dialogus. The Folger Consort and Trio Eos had two modes of performance for the selection of laude heard here, mostly a rhythmically free style for the singers with a sort of New Agey improvised accompaniment of harp and other plucked instruments, usually with a drone. I was far more convinced by two of the pieces that were given a more metered treatment, which brought this popular music into line with the medieval dance pieces, which is probably closer to the spirit of this repertory.

This concert will be repeated, at the Folger Shakespeare Library, through December 23.

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