Pilgrimage to Montserrat
The Renaissance Players
directed by Winsome Evans
$40 (Australian dollars)
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|The Renaissance Players, directed by Winsome Evans, was founded 48 years ago in Sydney. It has a nucleus of nine to ten musicians (singers and instrumentalists), which is varied according to the needs of particular performances. In addition, the group contains a poetry reader, and one or two miming clowns. The Renaissance Players has established itself as the most accomplished and widely known early music group in Australia. Their sense of musical style, colourful costuming, technical ability and vital presentation are their landmark qualities.|
The main focus of Pilgrimage to Montserrat is on the ten pilgrim songs, the so-called cants del romeus, contained in the Llibre Vermell (the Red Book), a codex from the library of the Monastery of the Blessed Virgin at Montserrat in Catalonia. The codex today contains only 137 sheets of what is believed to have once been 172 sheets. Amongst the missing contents there may have been an even more numerous collection of pilgrim songs than the ten which have survived.
The Renaissance Players’ reconstruction of, and additions to, this much-recorded collection of medieval pilgrim songs – many of which are dance songs – will demonstrate several new ways of performing and organising this material, rather than simply emulate the approaches undertaken by other, modern early music ensembles.
The aim is to show how richly varied, yet stylistically viable, reconstructions of “lost” performance traditions can be.
|Anon.||Vale Robina Anderson - Ad honorem tui Christe|
|Winsome Evans||Estampie cuncti simus|
|Colin Muset/Winsome Evans||Rota en mai quant Ii rossignolet chantent:|
|Anon.||Los set goyts|
|Anon./Winsome Evans||Rota mors vite propitia|
|Anon.||Ad mortem festinamus|
|Anon.||Ghost: Chanterai d'aquetz trobadores (excerpt) - Ye Sigh|
|Winsome Evans||Xoros stella|
|Anon.||O virgo splendens|
|Anon.||Imperayritz de la ciutat joyosa - Verges ses par misericordiosa|
|Winsome Evans||Xoros vale Robina|
|Peire d'Alvernhe/Winsome Evans||Chanterai d'aquetz trobadores|
|Anon.||Cuncti simus concanentes|
|Anon.||Ghost: Vale Robina Anderson|
|If you are looking for a Christmas stocking filler for the music-loving members of your family you need look no further than the varied and improbably catchy Pilgrimage to Montserrat by Winsome Evans and the Renaissance Players.|
Don’t be fooled by the title, or the medieval illumination of the Virgin Mary and angels which adorns the cover, this is no dusty old collection of spiritual pieces designed to make you feel reverent but a flesh-and-blood mixture of song and dance which could easily have you dancing round the loungeroom.
At the heart of this satisfying and highly atmospheric double disc set are the 10 pilgrim songs, or cants del romeus, contained in the 14th century Libre Vermell (Red Book), a codex from the library of the Blessed Virgin at Montserrat in Catalonia which was unearthed in 1806.
Eminent early music groups like Jordi Savall’s Hesperion XX and the New London Consort have harvested some rich pickings from this fascinating collection, but this offering from Evan has an added vibrancy and feeling of spontaneity. The instrumental elements, featuring a wide range of shawms, harps, horns, rebecs, gitterns and assorted percussion, all have a joyful and at times improvisatory feel.
Evans, this country’s pre-eminent early music scholar, performer and arranger, says in her comprehensive and informative liner notes: “The Renaissance Players’ reconstruction of, and additions to, this much-recorded collection of medieval pilgrim songs — many of which are dance songs — will demonstrate several new ways of performing and organising this material, rather than simply emulate the approaches undertaken by other, modern early music ensembles.
“The aim is to show how richly varied, yet stylistically viable, reconstructions of `lost’ performance traditions can be.”
Evans succeeds spectacularly, blending the contrasting vocal styles of classically trained choristers with the earthy and Moorish inflections of Sydney cabaret and session singer Avril Hermann. The instrumental arrangements range from the Middle Eastern influences of traditional Spanish music to folk settings with the Celtic feel of Alain Stivell’s Breton albums. The performances are beautiful.
Perfect companion pieces to the Pilgrimage double album are two more recent releases from Evans and the Renaissance Players on the same label — Gabriel’s Message (TP231) and Pillar of Wisdom (TP232). These two CDs are volumes IV and V of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, medieval manuscripts written in Galician-Portuguese during the reign of Alfonso X “El Sabio” (1221-1284). The Virgin Mary is mentioned in every song, which shows her playing an important role in earthly matters.
Pillar of Wisdom is dedicated to the late Kathleen Kulp Hill, from the school of medieval Romance languages at the University of Kentucky, USA. Gabriel’s Message is dedicated to the late Gough Whitlam.
Many Daily December 5, 2014
We engage with other cultures via travel, music and dining. But how to visit that equally exotic culture called the past? Ruins obscured by clamorous tourists often tell us more about now than then. Perhaps even more than art and literature, music provides the clearest window to how people thought, celebrated, mourned and worshipped. The trap with recreating ancient and early music is excessive reverence rather than whole-hearted performances that make the past truly come alive in the present. Winsome Evans' magical Renaissance Players certainly don't squib on this front as they recreate the collected songs sung by those making the pilgrimage to Catalonia's Monastery of the Blessed Virgin more than 700 years ago. The particular interest of this material is the interaction of the sacred and the secular; of solemn liturgical pieces and joyous dances. Evans has fleshed out the core material in ingenious ways that emphasise this interaction. The only quibble might be that the trained modern voices sometimes sound anachronistic in these songs, but their essence is still made miraculously real in the present.
© John Shand
Sydney Morning Herald 11 January 2015
These recordings by the Renaissance Players give us a pair of windows into the musical world of the Iberian peninsula before the Reconquista. The Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of over 400 poems (mostly Marian devotional) set to music, provides a taste of the sophisticated 13th century court of Alfonso X of Castille. The disc entitled "Pilgrimage to Montserrat" in turn takes its inspiration from the Llibre Vermell, a manuscript that contains the songs of pilgrims who visited one of the most famous Christian shrines of the time. They came from all classes, and from all over Europe; so that while the Cantigas are upscale, some of the anonymous monks who transcribed the Llibre Vermell probably thought at least a few of the songs they included counted as little more than slumming.
That was to be expected. Strange people, some with absurd manners from far away, visited Montserrat daily. The swarming multitudes that made the arduous pilgrimage under Papal dispensations, often in larger groups to gain protection from bandit gangs, accepted and lost people along they moved along. They traded stories and music to make the months or even years of travel pass more quickly. Ten of their song and dances, or cants de romeus, occupy six of the manuscript's folios, and survive today. These are included on the Montserrat album, along with five further medieval selections (one, presented in two versions) that emphasize both dance, and the circle, a feature Winsome Evans discusses at some length in her liner notes. Finally, there are two versions of a piece composed in 2002 to honor the late filmmaker, Robin Anderson, whose documentary of the previous year, Facing the Music, showed in dramatic fashion the constant efforts to make financial ends meet at Sydney University's prestigious Music Department.
Though the Montserrat material differs greatly in several important respects from the pair of Cantigas discs, they all share some characteristics. One is the great attention paid to establishing a contextual framework. Evans notes and justifies an amalgam of Christian, Islamic, and Jewish elements used to interpret the Cantigas, by the nearly eight centuries of religiously and culturally diversified rule in Spain before Alfonso X came to Castille's throne. In the Montserrat disc in turn she emphasizes pan-European medieval symbols, a cultural constant over many centuries that our age with its endless ephemeral, ad-driven symbols can't begin to comprehend. The constructivist masses of Ockeghem, with their numerological substrata, are only one example of this, but Evans (who doesn't neglect medieval numerology, either) focuses on the circular structure of the cants, and the sacred dancing that many pilgrims employed while organizing her larger, danceable sub-structures that are stylistically in line with what we know of the times.
The liner notes I've mentioned are an important part of the package. They are simply the best I've encountered for the period—and not just because of the copious detail they provide, though they never talk down to the reader, or assume a complete disinterest of such matters as modes, formes fixes, and text structures. Evans uses her notes to illustrate the reasons behind her editorial and performance decisions, rather than to present these decisions as foregone conclusions, turning the listener into an uncritical recipient for a set of ideas.
The only liner notes that come within hailing distance of these derive from a series of 1990s releases by La Reverdie; and their knowledgeable notes invariably cherry-picked the details of history to present their theses as unchallengeable facts. Evans has very definite opinions about how to perform these works, to be sure, but her notes repeatedly go out of their way to mention that her decisions are not definitive. They are certainly well-informed, but in an age when text and music yielded only a guideline to performance, any number of solutions to such matters as structuring, instrumentation, and voicing suggest themselves.
The Renaissance Players numbers under ten musicians for the pair of Cantigas releases we received, and just under 20 for the Montserrat disc, though the difference is largely due to the presence of a chorus on several cuts. Evans varies textures with a range of appropriate period instruments—vielle, shawn, harp, rebec, bells, etc—handled with restraint, so that there's none of "Medieval Stokowski effect" one finds in some other pre-Baroque ensembles. The ornamentation and some modal effects may seem at times unusual, until one remembers that the musicians are treating the Cantigas albums as influenced by several specific non-European sources, and the Montserrat CD by non-Iberian ones. In context, the fit is excellent. It's possible to argue against one or another of the more inventive treatments on the Montserrat CD, such as taking the vocal line's musical patterning in Ad mortem festinamus as an invitation for high drama to which the late European Middle Ages were prone. But there's no denying its effectiveness in performance, or the way Evans reaches her goal without treading over the line into Orff-like anachronisms.
Several of us at Fanfare have remarked in the past that pre-Baroque groups frequently seem to care very little about the quality of singing on display, as long as the instrumentals are technically first rate. That's not the case, here. All three releases are good in this respect, with the best vocals coming from lyric soprano Mina Kanaridis on the pair of Cantigas CDs. I can't speak to the size of her voice, but in all other respects she impresses: warmth of tone, excellent focus, even production, forward enunciation, and easy melismatic agility as required. It was this mix of qualities rather than any similarity of sound that bring to mind Ninon Vallin in her few, heavily arranged folk recordings of the 1930s, while listening to Kanaridis. And it's to the latter's credit that she can sustain such a comparison.
The Renaissance Players as a whole, though, have nothing to fear from other ensembles investigating the music of the period. Their earthy, energized approach in all three discs is well-researched for content and presentation, and always fascinating in performance. If you want to start with just one, I'd suggest checking out the Montserrat album, which is a candidate for my 2015 Want List at this time. But really, you can't go wrong with any of the three.
© Barry Brenesal
Fanfare January 2015
The Cantigas de Santa Maria is a collection of over 400 songs compiled between about 1270 and 1290 under the direction of King Alfonso X. Alfonso was King of Castile and León and an outstanding patron of the arts, sciences and culture. Indeed, it is possible that some of the creative input for the collection was his own.
The word ‘cantiga’ was widely used in the Iberian peninsular up to about 1450 to describe a song. Other than two far smaller extant collections, the Cantigas de Santa Maria is the only surviving music from the cantiga tradition. There are four surviving manuscripts of Cantigas de Santa Maria and three of these contain pictorial miniatures that decorate the manuscript, the whole forming one of the greatest artistic achievements of the Middle Ages.
The cantigas are mostly ballad-style accounts of miracles performed by the Virgin Mary (cantiga de miragres), but every tenth is a hymn in her praise (cantiga de loor). Perhaps what is most striking about the cantiga tradition is its language: Portuguese-Galician. This separates it from liturgical music in Latin. Indeed, it is nearly certain that the cantigas were intended for performance in secular settings as well as in church.
The two new releases from the Renaissance Players under the direction of Winsome Evans, Pillar of Wisdom and Gabriel’s Message, are the latest additions to their recordings dedicated to the vast collection of Cantigas de Santa Maria. Their previous recordings (Songs for a Wise King, Maria Morning Star, and Mirror of Light) were recorded between 1996 and 1998, however, and with a different label, Walsingham Classics. Now with Tall Poppies Records, the Renaissance Players have added a further 15 cantigas to their exploration of this repertoire.
The liner notes are particularly necessary for recordings of early music. Not only can it be used to provide listeners with an understanding of the music’s historical background, but it can be also used to explain performance decisions. For listeners new to the repertoire, there is a level of presumed knowledge. Some basic facts – what the word ‘cantiga’ means for example –are not given. The liner notes do state that further historical information can be found in the liner notes of their earlier discs. But given the gap of over fifteen years since their last recording, I am not convinced that they can rely on listeners to have bought their previous volumes.
The information provided is, however, interesting and comprehensive. As well as an English translation of the poetry, some further information is given for each individual cantiga. The explanation of the symbolic meaning of Jewish names in A madre do que livrou on the Pillar of Wisdom disc, for example, is particularly enlightening. It highlights the many layers of meaning that the cantigas had to contemporary audiences, which would otherwise be lost to modern listeners.
The liner notes also outline the performance decisions made for each cantiga. The surviving sources detail very little compared to what we are used to from modern notation, and there is no definite way of transcribing its metre, rhythm and use of melisma. We cannot know what their original performances were like, and they may have varied considerably depending on who was performing them, their setting, or what resources were available. Performances of this repertoire today, therefore, become a creative process. Decisions on which instruments to use, whether it should be sung by male or female voices (if sung at all), and whether the refrain should be repeated after each stanza are all decisions made by the performers.
The liner notes make no claims that these recordings represent the definitive authentic performance of these cantigas. Rather, the Renaissance Players aim to use a variety of performance styles to suggest the different ways in which these songs may have been performed. The Renaissance Players are particularly concerned with drawing out the drama from the cantigas. In Ben com’ aos que van per mar on Pillar of Wisdom, they switch from sung to spoken stanzas. In speaking stanzas three to six, the focus is on the narrative of the poetry. Mixing spoken and sung word emphasises how song and poetry are not two separate things, but can both be used in aid of the drama. Furthermore, their decision to only sing the refrain at the beginning and end of A madre de que livrou on Pillar of Wisdom also serves the drama. Instead they insert harp interludes, which comment upon and provide a moment of reflection away from the drama. I appreciate how the liner notes emphasise that it is possible to perform this cantiga by repeating the refrain after every stanza, but I agree with their decision not to: there are eleven stanzas after all, and hearing the same refrain that many times would become tiring.
Bĕeyto foi o dia on Gabriel’s Message is considerably longer than the other tracks, lasting over twenty minutes. This gives the Renaissance Players scope to explore the cantiga’s dramatic possibilities. For the narrative element, one voice recounts the bulk of the text, whilst different voices share the text to represent Joachim or Anna (the Virgin Mary’s parents). The main soprano singer, Mina Kanaridis, is full of expression, and the improvisatory feel that follows the rhythm of the words provides a feeling of spontaneity. There is a good balance between variation and repetition. The same tune keeps returning, but heard differently each time. Different vocal ornamentation, instrumental accompaniment or number of voices singing, are used to emphasise aspects of the text and changes in mood in the dramatic story. A second, lower female voice, Mara Kiek, is used for the voice of the angel. This has a nasal, exotic tone, and is an unexpected sound for our modern ears. Though it takes some getting used to, it provides an interesting contrast with the main soprano voice. When they combine, the result is something rather mysterious and beautiful.
The performance decisions made by the Renaissance Players were on the whole sensitive, and varied across the fifteen cantigas. It is important that they do not treat their sacred topic too delicately. The instruments chosen for Poi que Deus quis da Virgen Fillo on Gabriel’s Message were rustic and noisy, providing a raw sound. The decision to include a spoken introduction to most of the cantigas, however, was something I did not warm to. Being told what we are about to listen was patronising and unnecessary.
The Pilgrimage to Montserrat is the third recording released by The Renaissance Players with Tall Poppies Records this year. Rather than cantigas, it focuses on the ten pilgrim songs, the cants del romeus contained in the Llibre Vermell (the Red Book), a codex from the library of the Monastery of the Blessed Virgin at Montserrat in Catalonia. The liner notes explain the history of the pilgrimage to the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria at Montserrat, situated a few miles northwest of Barcelona in Catalonia. The Renaissance Players argue for the possibility that some of the songs may have come from beyond Catalonia or Iberia, sung by pilgrim travellers on the way to the monastery, and this is what lies behind their decision to extend the ten surviving cants del romeus with additional items.
These additional items demonstrate that for the Renaissance Players, this repertoire is still living music. Rota en mai quant li rossignolet chantent was possibly a popular song that pilgrims sang during their long journey to Montserrat. But in Winsome Evans’ arrangement, the entire original melody is only heard once at the beginning, followed by newly composed music. The result is a work that does not sound like something from an old and distant era. Similarly, shrieking and wooping in Los set goyts gives a lively, party atmosphere. This is music that is present. It sounds like a group of players gathering together to play for their own amusement, who could just as easily be from our own time as from 800 years ago.
The Renaissance Players’ treatment of the original cants del romeus further demonstrates that they are not tied to merely replicating the surviving music. Rather, they are eager to make this music their own. In Stella splendens, for example, only seven of the twenty-four stanzas are sung, and newly invented melodies are inserted between them. Their performance is joyfully rhythmic, capturing an energetic mood for this circle-dance song. The Renaissance Players enjoy using diverse instrumentation, including castanets and bells, as well as varying between choir and male duet. The following track, Xeros stella is a newly composed after-dance to Stella. Composed by Evans, she imagines Mediterranean pilgrim musicians taking up Stella’s melody, which is extended into new melodies whose modes and structures are related to their own traditional dance music. It is a boisterous, lively dance. The bombarde has perhaps a harsh sound to the modern ear, but its raw quality makes this music incredibly exciting.
For the Renaissance Players the Cantigas de Santa Maria and the cants del romeus are used as a foundation for creativity. We will never know what an authentic performance of this music should be like (that is, if a single authentic performance even existed). Yet for the Renaissance Players this is no restriction. Their recordings are exciting and unpredictable. For them, this is living music, and it is this that gives these recordings their integrity.
© Hazel Rowland
Fanfare January 2015
This music for a pilgrimage to the mountainside monastery near Barcelona is structured around the 10 songs preserved in the Llibre Vermell, the red book (from its modern binding) that escaped the fire that destroyed the monastery in 1811 at the hands of Napoleon’s army because it was out on loan. (The monks had to buy it back in 1885, not what I would call a “miraculous” return.) An additional eight tracks composed or arranged by Evans based on these and other songs form a tribute to the filmmaker Robin Anderson. The style of singing and playing is similar to other performers who realize a performance style derived from folk and popular idioms. El llibre vermell has been recorded complete over 20 times, but only four or five groups have sung all five verses of “Mariam matrem.” Here verses 1, 4, and 5 are as much as we usually hear, eight minutes’ worth. Given the length of five other songs that run from nine to 14 minutes, it would have been good to hear a little more. The detailed notes tell us about the manuscript, the songs, the role of dance among the pilgrims (reflected in the musical forms), the texts, their poetic structure, and the care with which they have been copied into the booklet. The last is a valuable part of the presentation. Altogether, this is one of the most effective presentations of this source, comparable to Carles Magraner’s version on Licanus, which is complete on one disc. The singing and playing are rousing, marvelously exciting.
The other two discs are volumes 4 and 5 of a series devoted to the cantigas attributed to Alfonso el Sabio. All the sung works are rendered complete, as they have been done more often than not since René Clemencic in 1976 and Thomas Binkley in 1980 began the practice with some of their selections (before that we usually got one or two strophes of a piece). Since 1994 Eduardo Paniagua has been recording an extensive series of cantigas covering more than half of the total, invariably performing each piece complete. I don’t know of another group that has offered a multi-disc traversal of this repertoire since her series began. Evans offers 10 cantigas on Pillar of Wisdom, three instrumental renditions and seven sung complete. On Gabriel’s Message, she has five cantigas, two instrumental and three sung complete. The longest cantiga heard here is “Beeyto foi o dia,” 30 strophes on the second disc playing for almost 24 minutes. The only other version is Eduardo Paniagua’s nominally complete version on The Life of Mary (20:5), also issued as La Vida de Maria (29:3). Since many of the strophes are recited to speed the narrative, it comes in around 15 minutes, while the singer heard here recites only five strophes, the rest being sung. Another cantiga on the same disc is “Pois que Deus,” 11 strophes running over 13 minutes, compared to nine minutes for both Paniagua and Sequentia. “Poilas figuras” on the same disc is also duplicated by Paniagua and Nelly van Ree. On Pillar of Wisdom, the only two cantigas duplicated by Paniagua are among the three instrumental renditions here, so this disc would be valuable even for anyone who might have a complete set of Paniagua’s discs. This is the most desirable of the three discs.
The cantigas are most often sung with a more or less elaborate instrumental accompaniment, based on the clearly portrayed singers and players in the miniatures that illuminate the elaborate manuscripts that preserve this repertoire. In music of the Middle Ages in general, the controversy about the use of instruments is less one-sided, performance practice more evenly divided, but in these works unaccompanied singing has been much less common on discs. Evans’s practice is similar to Paniagua’s, for she has a rich collection of instruments selectively used, one booklet listing 17 instruments, the other 15. But Evans uses her instruments more discreetly than Paniagua and the singers, especially the chorus, enunciate more clearly, so I can follow the text more readily. These two discs are certainly a valuable way of hearing the cantigas, recommended without regard to any others that you might already have. Pillar of Wisdom is especially valuable, for four of the 10 selections have never been recorded complete by my count and the other six are scattered widely, only “Entre Av’e Eva” being thrice duplicated by Brigitte Lesne, Ensemble Unicorn, and Esther Lamandier. The singers seem to my untutored ears to be fluent in the Gallician language. The booklets are very informative and detailed, even if the fifth issue refers back to all four previous issues for additional background information. (The first three are not listed on the Tall Poppies website.) Not having heard anything from Winsome Evans before this, I am mightily impressed.
J. F. Weber
Over the last few years there have been a number of recordings of music from the Llibre Vermel. This is a manuscript of popular pilgrim songs copied at the extraordinary monastery church situated on the jagged mountain of Montserrat outside the city of Barcelona. I have reviewed two or three of them.
I have however noticed an increase in what I might call the ‘liberalisation’ of the interpretations. In the 1960s and 1970s groups and choirs simply sang the music as it was written with the minimum of percussion for example. This means that the nine or ten songs were got through in say, fifteen minutes or so. It must be remembered that four of the songs come down to us as monophonic. These includeCuncti simus or Laudemus virginem which has one melody, but with instructions to sing as a three-part canon. Four are in three parts; two are in two parts. The forty-page booklet for this recording is superb and has two tables adumbrating each piece. For instance Los se goyts has four components: 1. a ballada in form; 2. a danse redon; 3. monophonic and 4. is in Catalan and Latin - in other words, macaronic.
I’m proud to say that I have joined pilgrims to Montserrat twice. On neither occasion however have we been brave enough to tackle the difficult mountain footpath from the lower road. On one occasion we took the cable car, but on both occasions we sang as we travelled; Stella Splendens was one such mantra. Once there you may experience a sense of disappointment as the abbey was rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century after being destroyed by Napoleon’s troops in 1811. You are not permitted to see the manuscript of the Llibre Vermel: The ‘Red Book’ so called because it was covered in red velvet for protection. You can however queue to touch the ancient Black Madonna and walk in the mountains to see the various wayside shrines. It is she that the pilgrims have for centuries desired to touch and to pray to. The other pilgrimage, of even greater fame is the one to North-West Spain — to Santiago de Compostella. It may be that some of these songs are interchangeable.
As the booklet reminds us under the sub-heading ‘Pilgrims’, visitors to Montserrat are from all over the world. That was also the case in the middle ages when Christians from eastern Europe and the middle east would have joined western Europeans in their walk, probably from Barcelona where they landed, to the monastery. This very fact has largely inspired this recording project.
You will recall that when Bartók and Kodály went around Bulgaria, Rumania and Hungary in the period 1902-5, collecting the folk music, they encountered, much to their surprise, irregular rhythms and phrase lengths not found in the Western music they knew. 7/8 or 5/8 or even 11/8 were heard and seemed natural especially for dancing. Winsome Evans who directs The Renaissance Players takes the view that most of the Llibre Vermel melodies can be so treated. Whereas most other recordings are happy to stay with traditionally notated compound time signatures as in Imperayritz de la cuitat or 4/4 as in Stella Splendens, Evans uses 5 time for the former and latter and 7 time for Polorum regina. In addition Evans has composed introductions and extra music breaking up the verses, imitating in most cases the circle dances which he maintains were so very popular in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and which would have entertained pilgrims.
Further to that she introduces instruments such as the Arabic Ud and the Tapan, an Indian drum — both in Polorum regina. There are also a Zils (finger cymbals) and a Daireh both appearing in a transcription of a troubadour song by Colin Muset, one of the secular pieces interspersed amongst theLlibre Vermel pilgrim songs. Medieval instruments like the bombarde, the shawm and the gemshorn are used. These are mostly outdoor instruments although the more intimate rebec and harp and duct flute. These are employed for gentler moments in the belief that pilgrim and troubadour songs would have been performed indoors as well. There are also passages in which the singers vocalise to ‘la’. These deliberately espouse a more nasal, eastern vocal technique and sound. This means that songs, which used to take, say four minutes to perform, are now elongated, as in Polorum, to more than ten.Ad Mortem Festinamus, a dance of death, weighs in at over fourteen minutes and still not all of the verses are performed.
As well as the Llibre Vermel itself Evans has inserted instrumental dance pieces based on, in some cases the songs. For instance, the Stella Splendens is followed by the instrumental Xoros Stella, an improvisation around the original. As well as the Muset song mentioned, a song by Peire d’AlvernheChanterai d’arquetz trobadores, derived from a thirteenth century Catalan source is used. It is played as a "boisterous, quasi-rustic circle dance" suggested "by the last two lines of Piere’s lyrics – a list of contemporary pop musicians". Evans also adds descants and polyphonies to songs. This is done most successfully in the amazingly beautiful Maria Matrem.
The idea of a circle is further exemplified — the maze on the floor of Chartres Cathedral is illustrated in the booklet — by the two 'ghost' tracks, which phase into and out of tracks heard at the start of the CD. The last is called Vale Robin Anderson, a well-known Australian filmmaker who died in 2002 at the age of only 51 having completed a film documentary (Face the Music) about the closure of the Music Department on the main campus of Sydney University.
The Renaissance Players consist of nineteen musicians playing a variety of instruments; of the nineteen, nine are singers. The musicians are all named in a list at the back of the booklet.
In a sense if you like this group’s approach then you will find that these are colourful and often exciting renditions. You might well think that they bring medieval music to the kind of life that we only occasionally glimpse when we walk into an ancient church which is still covered with elaborate wall paintings in vivid greens, blues and reds. On the other hand you might feel that these beautiful, simple melodies have been robbed of their gentle spirituality. I fall somewhere between the two stools. I can’t say that I really like yards and yards of loud 7/8 with screeching wind instruments, lots of hand-clapping and sometimes rather raucous voices. On the other hand it's quite possible that this is exactly what this music might have sounded like. It's also possible that both methods were employed at different times.
Tall Poppies provide texts and translations as well as the quoted essay by Winsome Evans in which she explains her approach to each piece with certain points highlighted in red.
© Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International October 2014
Listening to music can sometimes be a religious experience; well this is a lengthy one. Just under two hours, over two disks of rapturous singing, impassioned, yearning, sometimes bleak songs all directed with beautiful harmonies by Winsome Evans.
The Renaissance players offset with a vast range of bells and acoustic instruments, rings with the medieval vocal patterns of the old world, evoking ecstasy in the talented arrangements of vocally driven performances.
Imagined jesters and feasts, kings and queens dance through ornately designed churches in the mind’s eye, images of exotic celebrations begin at the first note of the gemshorn.
© Sarah Pritchard
Recording and performing for nearly fifty years, The Renaissance Players, conceived and led by the indefatigable Winsome Evans, has always combined research with scholarly-informed interpretation and a cheeky sense of fun in the creation of music with vigour and excitement. Indeed, every Renaissance Players performance is an event with a variable troupe of musicians, mimes, poetry readings, costumes, and an amazingly rich palette of instrumental and vocal sounds.
Many student musicians have passed through the ranks of the ensemble based at Sydney University, with many going on to professional careers making their name as performers in early music, non-Western music, popular music, classical music, and in academia. Included in the ensemble for this recording are ex-students of decades past — Belinda Montgomery and Tony Lewis.
The songs of this double CD set are built around a collection of ten pilgrim songs contained in the fourteenth century manuscript known as the Llibre Vermell. The songs are representative of those that were sung by pilgrims making their way from all over Europe up the treacherous mountain path to the Monastery of the Blessed Virgin at Montserrat in Catalonia. These are supplemented by a number of complementary pieces imagined as sacred circle dances deriving from many cultures. The collection has the energy and exhilaration of an international medieval rave party! With anthem-like simple structures, and catchy rhythms, many of the songs are ‘earworms’. A standout is ‘Stella Splendens’ which opens the second CD — nine minutes of pure fun. The only blemish in the recording is an imbalance of some of the voices, both in singing style and volume.
A recurring theme through the collection is circular motion, in the structure of the pieces, in the use of round-like vocal phrases, and over the structure of the two CDs. The collection is bookended by pieces written in memoriam of the filmmaker Robin Anderson, co-director of the documentary film Face the Music which dealt with the closing down of the Music Department on the main campus of Sydney University. Anderson died soon after the critically successful launch of the documentary. While the pieces beginning and ending the CD are therefore quiet and reflective, most of the pieces are ecstatic celebrations of life.
Recordings for the CD were made in 2002 at Megaphon Studios with Guy Dickerson, but this CD, the first for the Renaissance Players on Tall Poppies, was released only this year. The sound is spacious, yet detailed.
Over almost half century, Winsome Evans has shaped The Renaissance Players as an exemplar for early music interpretation. This collection proves that audacious interpretations of this ancient music allow it to excite and engage us today.
© Anthony Linden Jones, Nov 2014
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