In Blue Heron’s “Songs & Dances for Isabella” at First Church Cambridge on Saturday, players surprisingly outnumbered singers four to two! Coming the heels of the completion of the Ockeghem@600 project, Scott Metcalfe on harp and fiddle, Debra Nagy on recorder and douçaine (a type of shawm), Anna Danilevskaia on vihuela de arco (a predecessor to the viol), and Emma-Lisa Roux on lute, with the superb voices of Sophie Michaux and Jason McStoots, offered early Renaissance secular music.
Sean Gallagher foregrounded the concert’s theme: music in the court of Isabella d’Este (1474-1539). Upon her marriage to the Marquess of Mantua, she cultivated many arts in the northern Italian city. She hired painters and sculptors to adorn her studiolo with the highest visual art, employing no less than Mantegna, Costa, and Perugino. She micromanaged artists, constraining their work to express her personal tastes. She took particular interest in secular and instrumental works that could fill her castello with further representations of her personality. The show included examples of both music she patronized and other examples mostly from France, which was equally popular in Italy.
Among the many popular misconceptions among early performance types is a belief that mixing voices and instruments was taboo. This is actually untrue. Mixing voices and instruments occurred in sacred contexts and madrigals too, and the practice was popular in the secular chansons found in the famous Loire valley chansonniers in the second half of the 15th century. Madrigals and motets with purely instrumental ensembles were also staples of the repertoire of purely instrumental ensembles in the 15th and 16th centuries. HIP groups still tend to focus on the era’s spectacular vocal compositions, leaving mixed vocal/instrumental works underperformed. This is, in part, due to the scarcity of quality instrumentalists who can perform on these obscure instruments. Indeed, this concert has required Blue Heron to seek out specialists in this field, with Anna Danilevskaia and Emma-Lisa Roux making their debuts with the group for this project. This program is the brainchild of Debra Nagy, whom Scott Metcalfe called (without exaggeration) “the best douçaine player in the world.” While they themed the program around Isabella’s court and included scores from Okeghem and his circle , they also sought to investigate the deeper question: how did composers actually combine voices and instruments around 1500?
Three-voice secular repertoire from Okeghem’s generation and earlier has particular performance issues. Text is usually only applied to the highest line (unnamed, but called cantus) and the tenor. Musically, they are self-sufficient and could be performed as a duo. The third line, called the Contratenor, is usually untexted, and the extent to which the absence of text implies instrumental performance is hotly contested. The treatment of dissonances in the Contratenor indicates (to some) that the instrument should be a plucked string, as the decay of the sound would hide 7ths and 9ths and other dissonances that would be heard from sustained sounds. Blue Heron often took a via media approach, performing similar pieces with different approaches. The lute, harp, and vihuela took turns plucking out the Contratenor, sometimes plucking together to create interesting aural combinations. The pieces in the concert were collected into themed sets, like a song recital.
Beginning the theme “Contemplation,” with Okeghem’s Prenez sur moi vostre exemple amoureux, the only a cappella piece we heard, McStoots, Michaux, and Roux introduced the audience to the timbres of the early Renaissance repertoire. Isabella enjoyed this song enough to have it made into a wood-inlaid decoration in the wall in her studiolo. The three-voice piece consists of only one notated line from which two canonic lines are derived. Blue Heron chose to have all three lines sung, reflecting the fact that a texted line, vocal in character, was available to anyone reading from the canonic original. The line featured many exquisite moments of leaps and suspensions which the singers graciously passed between themselves. The audience relished this beautiful gesture, first heard from McStoots’s golden tenor; it gradually worked its way through the ensemble, passing though Michaux’s silvery mezzo and fully blossoming in Roux’s bright soprano. The effect was like seeing a large wave crash against the shore: first a little down the beach, then a little closer, and finally over your head. Isaac’s La mi la sol followed, played by the four instrumentalists, it put forth the unique qualities of each. The mystical acoustics of First Church in Cambridge magically transformed their characteristically small and nasal tones into a sweet chorus. The contrasting sounds of the instruments (plucked lute, bowed vihuela, double-reed douçaine) highlighted the independence of the lines as they swirled about, but that only made the homorhythmic passage towards the end even more arresting to the ear.
“Patronage” featured pieces by two of the composers Isabella d’Este supported. Emma-Lisa Roux played Capirola’s mournful Ricercar otavo, setting the stage for Cara’s Per dolor me bagno il viso (“Out of grief I bathe my face”). Roux filled the hall with dulcet vocal tones while also playing her lute. Despite the size of the 425-seat sanctuary, her simple gestures and calm stage presence pulled us into Isabella’s private study. Several people who sat near me seemed so engaged that they breathed with her around phrases and cadences. This set elicited the most applause from the moved audience.
“Private Pleasures included two instrumental works from Isabella’s court: the anonymous dance La Spagna and Pesaro’s two-voice Falla con misuras. The set began with Okeghem’s D’ung aultre amer, for which the vihuela de arco took the cantus, and the harp played tenor and contratenor. They continued with Tinctoris’s diminution version. The Players heavily ornamented their parts with varieties of scalar and gestural figures and a cornucopia of articulations and tonguings.
Count this writer among the enthusiasts looking forward to the ensemble’s return to the stage in Cambridge next October. Click HERE to preview the season.