Sunday, April 18, 2010

East is East and West is West

Among performers of early music of Western Europe there seems to be a growing interest in the musical traditions from the regions around the Mediterranean. In particular interpreters of medieval and early renaissance music try to discover how the musical traditions of Christians, Muslims and Jews have influenced each other. Much attention is paid to the musical culture in Spain at the time the Cantigas de Santa Maria were created. It is probably the emergence of a 'multicultural' society in Western Europe which has led to this interest in the musical traditions of the East.

I would like to pay attention to three recent recordings which shed light on music of the East or confront music from the various traditions around the Mediterranean.

The first is a disc of the ensemble VocaMe (1), which is devoted to the work of Kassia, a female Byzantine-Greek composer who lived from 810 to around 867. She was born in a wealthy family and received an excellent education. She became the abbess of a monastery, wrote a number of poems and composed liturgical music, sometimes on her own texts. The similarities with Hildegard of Bingen are striking. More than 50 compositions are attributed to her, although the authenticity of about half of them is questionable. VocaMe has selected 18 pieces, all on a Greek text. They are syllabic and monophonic, but in this recording most of them are accompanied with a bourdon, either sung or played on an instrument. The result is a fascinating disc of music from a largely unknown tradition. It is Christian music, but with an unmistakeable eastern flavour.

Secondly I would like to mention a disc by the ensemble Doulce Mémoire (2), entitled 'Laudes'. The subject of the recording is the repertoire of the confraternities - often called laudesi -, associations with a spiritual and charitable purpose. In the meetings of these fraternities hymns were sung, especially in praise of the Virgin Mary. In his liner notes the ensemble's director Denis Raisin Dadre writes that during his research into the music of these confraternities "I became aware of the astonishing kinship of organisation and rituals between Muslim orders and Christian confraternities. My meeting with the Iranian singer Taghi Akhbari confirmed these intuitions." This led to a recording in which the laude as sung by the confraternities are confronted with comparable repertoire of Muslim religious orders. The laude are performed by the ensemble Doulce Mémoire, whereas Taghi Akhbari and Nader Aghakhani play and sing the music from the Muslim religious orders. Fortunately any attempt to mix the two traditions - either in the interpretations or in the musicians participating in the performances - has been avoided. That makes this disc an example of a confrontation of East and West which really makes sense.

Lastly, Alla Francesca (3) recorded a programme under the title 'Mediterranea'. "A panorama of the cultures to be found on the shores of the Mediterranean: troubadour songs, laude to the Virgin and estampies from the Trecento mingle with Sephardic lullabies and folksongs collected in Italy", according to the information on the backside. The ensemble makes use of the research into the traditional music and the performance techniques. It is a dangerous undertaking for classically-educated musicians to perform traditional music, but in my view the members of Alla Francesca are giving good performances here. They have not fallen into the trap of trying to sing deliberately unpolished or producing too exotic sounds. There are some influences of Eastern music but these are not exaggerated in a speculative way.

I cannot resist mentioning a disc which is an example of how not to confront East and West. The ensemble Celeste Sirene (4) has recorded a programme with music of the 17th century, including composers like Castaldi, Kapsberger and Marais, alongside traditional Persian music and improvisations in traditional Eastern style. Putting this kind of repertoire together on one disc doesn't make much sense anyway. What is worse: in the performance of some pieces from the West traditional Arabian instruments are used and Arabian-style ornamentation is applied. This kind of 'multicultural' performances lack any historical or stylistic plausibility.

(1) Kassia: Byzantine Hymns - VocaMe/Michael Popp (Christophorus CHR 77308)
(2) Laudes - Doulce Mémoire/Denis Raisin Dadre (ZigZag Territoires ZZT 090901)
(3) Mediterranea - Alla Francesca (ZigZag Territoires ZZT 090402)
(4) Gol o Bolbol: Early Music from Persia and Europe - Ensemble Celeste Sirene (Cavalli Records CCD 336)

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