Medieval Music

  • Exploring the Psalms


    Birds of the Psalms
    Cappella Clausura/Amelia LeClair
    Navona Records 6176
    Total Time:  51:50
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    This beautiful new release of choral music features Capella Clausura.  Amelia LeClair founded the ensemble in 2004 with one of its goals to promote the work of women composers.  For this new release, LeClair has focused on music inspired by Biblical psalms.  The album takes its title from a new work by Patricia van Ness which opens the album.

    Ness’s Birds of the Psalms is a collection of 10 psalm settings that have avian imagery and this idea of the divine depicted by a bird, or a bird protected by the divine.  Dove imagery is a common component of the ancient Biblical texts in both Jewish and Christian traditions.  Among them is this image of the sheltering bird which is a common theme in six of the texts used here.  Her music here takes its inspiration as well from ancient church modes and the more melismatic settings upon which harmonies themselves occur naturally across the linear presentation of the text.  This might make the words themselves more difficult to discern at times, but it creates a rather rich wash of sound.  There is some nice word painting along the way (for example on “quakes” in the Psalm 55 setting).  The music itself overall bears close resemblance to Morten Lauridsen’s style.  Each movement helps highlight different voices creating a nice variety.  The male vocal setting of Psalm 17 adds a deep, rich plea to the text that becomes more angelic once the female voices are then added (the female voices get a similar chance in the setting of Psalm 61).  In the following setting of Psalm 57, the Latin text adds a further ancient feel.  The vocal lines as well are written in a late Medieval quality with nice imitation occurring that can bring us to some quite stunning dissonances that add an extra emotional punch.  Things move along a bit more in the seventh movement’s setting of Psalm 148 with its creeping things.  It requires some fun effects as well which add some challenge to the music and a bit of necessary energy.

    The program is filled out with beautiful renditions of Tchaikovsky’s setting of the Kiev Chant, “Svete Tihiy”, and two selections from Rachmaninov’s Vespers (“Blagoslovi, dushe moya” and “Blazhen muzh”).  These give us samples of the rich Eastern Orthodox church styles explored by these composers.  A couple of classic English anthems also appear.  First is Purcell’s brief “Hear My Prayer” followed by Weelke’s “When David Heard”.  The program closes with a setting by an Eastern Roman abbess, one of the first female medieval composers, Kassia (810-856) allowing us a window into the very beginnings of this choral tradition explored fittingly on this album.

    The album was recorded at the groups May 2016 concerts in the Boston area.  Audience noise is quite minimized apart from applause at the end of the Ness and the final work.  The church settings lend a sense of the sort of rich sound that can be attained in these spaces, always hard to capture in a recording but Navona’s engineers have managed to give the listener a real sense of sitting in the midst of a cathedral to wallow in the gorgeous music presented here.



  • Renaissance Journeys with Piffaro

     Back Before Bach: Musical Journeys

    Navona Records 6106
    Total Time:  61:00
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Navona branches backward a bit from its more typical contemporary releases for this intriguing new album by America’s premiere Renaissance band, Piffaro.  Based in Philadelphia, Piffaro has been bringing Medieval and Renaissance music to a growing public for some 35+ years.  The group uses carefully reconstructed instruments to help lend an authentic sound to the music.  The present recording is a sort of musical journey that works across history from the earliest appearance of a tune through its several incarnations.  The concept is to follow these threads to help provide a foundation of musical influences and sounds that would be in the background of the Baroque’s most famous of composers, Johann Sebastian Bach.

    The German Bands of Bach’s childhood opened his ears to the potential of wind instruments.  Melodies and hymns would also find their inspiration in some of the chorales that would be the culmination of his own cantatas.  To help provide context for Bach’s music, each collection of pieces here begins by exploring some of the unique Renaissance instruments that would have been common for use in the selections here.  Then the works are grouped to provide a sort of intriguing journey that explores these unique sonorities as both the tunes themselves and the instruments evolve to set the stage for Bach’s own work.  This is particularly pronounced in the 8 pieces related to “Christ ist erstanden.”  We begin with a brief setting from the Glogauer Liederbuch and then are treated to versions by Heinrich Isaac, Heinrich Finck, Stephen Mahu, Johann Walther, and Michael Praetorius.  These settings shift from three to five lines and will culminate in the chorale setting to Bach’s cantata, BWV 276.  One might think that exploring the same tune like this would be wearisome, but quite the opposite is true as one can hear the subtle development of harmony and the way a shift in instrument use also impacts the color and tenor of the tune itself.  A similar approach is taken for the Chorale, “Christum wir sollen loben schon” which begins with the Latin hymn from the Coelius Sedulius and then moves into motets, hymns, and chorales by Walther, Praetorius, and Samuel Schiedt.

    If there is one thing that tends to grab the modern listener’s attention to this music it is generally that for dancing as this tends to appear in period television and film (albeit often very contemporized!).  Piffaro pulls together a number of dances to provide some of the vernacular styles and sounds of the period to balance those heard in the sacred expressions.  There are three segments on the disc devoted to this music which was often not notated.  The first collection of these. “Innsbruck, Ich muess dich Lassen” explores the sounds of krumhorns and bagpipes for this tune that would become a popular hymn.  A later suite of German dances provides some of the rhythmic drive that would inform Bach’s work, the Scheidt “Allemande” certainly will catch the dance-like patterns.  The collection explores the sound of sackbuts and shawms that are spread out in collections of pieces.

    To get a feel for the chromatic writing of the period, Piffaro sets aside a section of four pieces exploring the music of Orlando di Lasus, Jakob Handl, and Melchoir Franck.  They then shift to recorders to explore the development of a Rhenish tune.  The blend of popular songs, dances, and sacred hymns/chants makes this a fascinating listening experience.

    Back Before Bach is indeed a rather fascinating musical journey.  The ensemble is captured in a dry acoustic which allows for crisp and clear sound.  One can almost imagine oneself transported to a court, or perhaps a merchant home where a group of musicians has been hired to entertain one for the night, especially in the dances.  The sacred musical ideas are equally compelling to hear the slight changes in melodic stress and the gradual shift from open to closer harmonies.  While the subtleties of some aspects may be lost on some learners, the recording is an invaluable educational tool to help students hear how this music evolved.  One tends to forget that Bach’s music can really dance, even in his sacred works, and this quality surely gets more support in this masterful release of period music.