Friday, July 2, 2021

Between 'art' and tradition (1)

Most 'classical' music performed today in churches and concert halls all over the world, and recorded on disc, belongs among the category of what is called 'art music'. It was written by composers and has come down to us in fixed form, either in manuscript or in printed editions. However, in the course of history, much music - and probably even most - was sung and played by people who did not use any written notes; many of them were probably not even able to read music. Improvisation was the name of the game, and music was handed over from one generation to another orally. It had no fixed form, and in the course of time, both texts and music often changed considerably. In most cases their original forms are not known, unless at some time such music was written down. Obviously, in the case of traditional music, it is hard, if not impossible, to decide which kind of performance is 'authentic'. That should be taken into consideration in the assessment of the discs under review here.

The Capella de Ministrers has released a disc with the title "Arrels" [1], which means "roots". This word seems to be part of the dialect that is spoken in the Spanish province Valencia, as this disc is devoted to this part of Spain. This is probably where this ensemble is rooted, since in the booklet its director, Carles Magraner, states that after thirty years of exploration of 'our' musical heritage, time has come to shed light on the connection between tradition and the earliest specimens of 'art music'. The programme includes several genres that we still know today, such as the fandango and the bolero, as well as the typical Spanish jacara. As one may expect, most pieces are anonymous. The only relatively well-known composer is Juan Bautista Comes (1582-1643). A disc with motets and villancicos from his pen was released by Brilliant Classics in 2016. Here we also hear a sacred piece, and the connection with tradional music is that it is based on the folia, originally a folk dance, which in the course of history was often used as a subject of variations. Unfortunately, Magraner decided to perform traditional melodies with newly-written lyrics. That does not compromise the importance of this production, as its aim is realised anyway. The ensemble delivers engaging performances. Alongside instruments which are common in performances of early music, such as viola da gamba, recorder and harp, the performers also use instruments which are almost exclusively used in traditional music. The two singers feel completely at home in this repertoire and rightly avoid a way of singing which is too 'sophisticated'. Apart from those who are open to this kind of music, lovers of Spanish music should investigate this disc.

It's only a small step to the next disc, because Ex Silentio [2] opens its programme with a song from the Sephardic tradition. That is the music of the Jews, who lived at the Iberian peninsula, until they were evicted from the country (unless they were willing to convert to the Christian faith) at the end of the 15th century. For several centuries Jews, Christians and (islamic) Moors lived together; the latter are the connection to the Near East, whose musical culture is the thread of the programme, as the disc's subtitle indicates. Several pieces represent Ottoman culture, but there are also songs which are stylistically part of Western culture, but have been written at the court of Nicosia. The disc closes with four such songs. Before these we hear No m'agrad, a song by Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, a French troubadour, who is assumed to have spent the last years of his life in Thessaloniki. This song is monophonic, but is performed here to an accompaniment of instruments, which also play interludes. These are strongly influenced by the musical culture of the Near East, and it is questionable whether they do justice to the character of this song. Unfortunately the programme notes are rather concise. The programme includes two so-called peşrevs, but what exactly is a peşrev is not explained. It is a form of Turkish classical music; more about that at Wikipedia. These two pieces are performed in arrangements, and one of them does sound a bit modern to my ears. Despite my critical remarks, I recommend this disc, as it sheds light on the connection between East and West in the realm of the music of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and does so in a largely convincing manner. The singing and playing leave nothing to be desired.

Traditional music has no fixed form, but sometimes specimens from this kind of repertoire were written down. A manuscript of this kind was the main source for the programme recorded by the ensemble Prisma [3]. It dates from the 17th century and is known as Codex Caioni. It includes pieces from Italy and Germany as well as traditional music of what is today Hungary and Romania. The performers have added traditional songs and dances of later times. The title of this disc refers to an organ treatise by Girolamo Diruta, Il Transilvano, which was published in Venice in 1593 and was dedicated to Prince Sigismund Báthory of Transylvania. This is also what Dávid Budai, who plays bass violin and folk viola, inspired to compose a toccata in Diruta's style. It is one of several pieces from the pen of members of the ensemble. With this disc they aim at showing the connection between 'art music' and traditional music. La Romana by Orazio Tarditi is an example of an Italian piece in the modern concertante style of the early 17th century which found its entry in the Codex. Whether Biagio Marini's well-known Sonata sopra La Monica is also part of the collection is unclear, but its inclusion is inspired by the fact that this popular song, which was known in different countries under different titles, was used in Hungary for a sacred hymn. Improvisation is also an important element in the traditional part of the programme. Dávid Budai's Toccata la Francesca makes use of elements from the ensuing traditional song Bocsásd meg Úristen (Forgive me, O Lord). The programme includes a number of dances. Dance music is not only a substantial part of 'art music', it is also one of the most important aspects of popular culture. Dances of the first category are mostly not intended for dancing, but in popular culture they certainly were. One may think that traditional music is mostly rather simple, especially as its performers may usually have been amateurs, without a formal musical education. Some dances included here prove otherwise, as they are remarkably virtuosic. The selection of pieces makes much sense, and the singing and playing is excellent.

These three discs are quite different in content and in the way the programmes have been put together. However, they have one important thing in common. Over the years I have heard quite some discs with a mixture of traditional and 'art music', and many of them did not convince me, for instance because traditional music was given too sophisticated a performance, or, rather, because 'art music' was 'popularised'. Nothing of that is the case on these discs. Here the character of each individual piece is respected, and it is admirable that the performers are able to adapt to the different nature of the pieces they have selected. For those who have a special interest in traditional music, these three discs are valuable additions to their collection, whereas those who are mainly interested in early music may also be interested to become acquainted with the connections between 'art' and tradition.

[1] Arrels - Entre la tradicio i el patrimoni (Blending tradition and heritage)
Capella de Ministrers/Carles Magraner
Capella de Ministrers CdM 1844 (© 2018) details

[2] Lethe - Forgotten music of the oriental courts of Thessaloniki, Nicosia and Istanbul, from the Middle Ages to the 17th century
Ex Silentio
Carpe Diem CD-16323 (© 2020) details

[3] Il Transilvano - Musical bridges between Italy and Hungary around 1600
Ambronay AMY312 (© 2020) details

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