Return to the Age of Enlightenment Part I: An Exploration of Renaissance & Baroque Recordings

The Tudor Choir
Jacob Clemens Non Papa Requiem & Motets
Loft Recordings, 2005

Stephen Stubbs
Teatro Lirico
ECM/Universal Classics, 2006

Juan Manuel Quintana
Marin Marais, Suites pour viole de gambe et basse continue
Harmonia Mundi, 2006
Huelgas-Ensemble
Jacobus de Kerle, “Da Pacem Domine, Masses & Motets
Harmonia Mundi, 2005

Orlando Consort
The Rose, the Lily & the Whortleberry
Harmonia Mundi, 2005

Rene Jacobs
Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas
Harmonia Mundi, 2006

This article or collection of reviews is meant to be an introduction to some of the players of the international Early Music community. Certainly I do not consider myself an expert on this genre of classical music and only recently have I begun exploring it myself. I would like to explain some of the terms though. Motet is sacred text, such as The Song of Solomon or the story of the Prodigal Son, (as examples), that are sung a cappella in a church setting. Madrigals, I believe were secular songs sung in the Renaissance era, that eventually paved the way for opera which was born during the Baroque era.

I do not have the exact dates for the different eras, but Medieval music is generally from the 11th to 15th centuries, the Renaissance is sandwiched between the Medieval and Baroque periods and the Baroque period ends around the time of JS Bach’s death, roughly 1750, although not all academics agree with this date. Polyphony actually came about earlier than the Renaissance period, but flourished during that time. The Medieval period is known for its plainsong chants, such as Gregorian chants, but even with plainsong chants there were some strange deviations such as the liturgical chants composed or channeled by the German Abbess Hildegard of Bingen during the 12th century.

And finally, since King Louis, XIV is mentioned in this article, its worth a mention that the king was a professional dancer and a great supporter of the performing arts. As you will notice in the review on Marin Marias’ compositions, several types of European dance styles and rhythms are mentioned including, Saraband, Gigue, Gavotte, etc… Today you will find these dance styles performed in traditional Quebecois music and I believe also, Old School Cajun music and other traditional music. Although we are listening to these ancient recordings amongst contemporary trappings, many of these discs, provide historical information in liner notes so you can have some fun by transporting yourself back in time. Perhaps that is the appeal of this music besides it’s gorgeous vocals and exotic instruments.

I am going to start of this collection of reviews close to home. Although many people reading this review might not know it, Seattle boasts a spectacular Early Music scene with both choral and instrumental ensembles performing everything from European Medieval music to early American music of the Quakers. Residing in Seattle, The Tudor Choir has received both international and local acclaim. The choir which ranges between 8 and 40 vocalists, depending on the repertoire performed, formed in 1993 under the direction of Doug Fullington. To date, the choir has released 5 recordings and was also featured on contemporary composer Ingram Marshall’s Savage Altars, in which the vocalists perform an atonal composition.

I enjoy renaissance choral music, and the music that appears on Requiem & Motets, features a lesser known composer, Jacob Clemens Non Papa. The Dutch composer who composed breathtaking polyphony during the Renaissance period, is a rare treat these days. According to the liner notes, Clemens had composed nearly 100 secular songs and to date, his surviving sacred compositions include 15 masses, 233 motets, 2 cycles of Magnificat settings, 159 settings for Dutch metrical psalms and the requiem that appears on this disc. Sadly, this beautiful work is rarely performed these days.

The Tudor Choir features a total of 15 vocalists on this recording, but only 10 of the vocalists appear on all of the tracks. The shimmering and clear soprano voices of Rachel Taylor Brown, Rebekah Gilmore, Christina Siemens and Linda Strandberg embellish this set of Christian liturgical polyphony while the alto, tenor and bass vocalists anchor the work. All of the voices reflect a breathtaking beauty that causes the soul to ache. The vocals arch and ascend like angels in rafter of a cathedral. The Requiem alone which takes up half of the recording gives off a powerful urge to transcend the here and now. Jacob Vaet (1529-1567), a younger contemporary of Clemens work, Continuo Lacrimas, an elegy in memory of Clemens after his untimely death, also deserves a mention. And the motet, Pater peccavi, the prodigal son’s plea of mercy to his father, which may or may not have been composed by Clemens, demands your undivided attention.

At a time when the Catholic church was dealing with the Protestant reform and the Age of Enlightenment spearheaded by the scientists and artists of that era, musical work commissioned by the church alone could lead to spiritual transcendence at least from my 21st century perspective. Today, the Catholic church appears to be facing similar problems. However, Christian liturgical music originally composed for the Catholic church is growing in popularity. Think Gregorian chants and sacred renaissance polyphony. This seems to indicate that we still need sacred music, spirituality and God, but without all of the dogma. And certainly you do not need to be a Christian to relish The Tudor Choir’s offerings. You just need two ears and an open heart. You might also find as I did, that this recording has a mind-body-soul healing effect.

American Lutenist Stephen Stubbs leads his baroque quartet on a journey through 17th century Slovakia and Italy. Slovakian string player Milos Valent, harpist Maxine Eilander and multi-instrumentalist Erin Headley present both original compositions that reflect the Baroque era and the work of various baroque composers. This collection includes work by Italian composers Arcangelo Corelli, Giovanni Paolo Foscarini, Giovanni Battista Granata, Guilio Caccini, Carlo Farina and Maurizio Cazzati as well as, a suite of Slovakian 17th century music from Johann Caspar Horn and anonymous composers. The recording was produced in Austria in early 2004 and the timing couldn’t be better for its release since Early Music is currently capturing the consciousness of international audiences.

When I think of baroque music it is usually upbeat with various melodic lines competing for my attention. I think of the most famous baroque composer, JS Bach. But the music on this CD moves at a slow pace and linear fashion. The compositions are performed on chitarrone, baroque guitar, viola da gamba, lirone, harps, violin and viola. While this is a gorgeous collection, the sparks of passion that appear on Rolf Lislevand’s recording, Nuove Musiche (also from the Baroque era) are missing on Stubb’s Teatro Lirico. Stubb’s exquisite finger work, Eilander’s shimmering harp as well as, Valent and Headley’s strings make up for this lack of musical fireworks. The musicians certainly know the way around their instruments and their musical instincts lead them in the right direction. I recommend adding this instrumental recording to an Early Music collection.

Juan Manuel Quintana’s exploration of Marin Marais‘ Suites for viola de gamba and basse continue, also falls into the realm of baroque instrumental. Dolores Costoyas contributes baroque lute, (thèorbe) and Attilio Cremonesi contributes clavichord. The recording delves into the baroque world of King Louis XIV’s musical court in which, along with the composer-musician, Jean-Baptiste Lully and the playwright Jean-Baptiste Molière, Marin Marais played a key role in defining the French culture of that era. Marais’ specialty was composing for the viole de gambe, a cousin to the contemporary cello and an instrument that appears in numerous baroque recordings including those by the famed Jordi Savall of Spain. But Marais also composed 4 operas and performed his work.

The collection of suites that appear on this recording include, Suite en Rè majeur, (D major), Suite in A minor, The Labyrinth and Suite in E minor. The recording starts off at a slow pace and picks up tempo by track 7, which is a French dance, Gavotte. The pace does eventually slow down again, leaving listeners’ minds space to wander. The composer incorporated many types of courtly dances within his suites. The music was originally composed to entertain the Sun King, (Louis XIV) and his royal court. I saw a intriguing film, The King is Dancing that focused on the Sun King’s artistic achievements and also the various intrigue of his court artists, including the ever controversial, Jean-Baptiste Lully. I wish I could view the film again, this time to focus on the soundtrack.

In the meantime, Juan Manuel and his musical colleagues have brought King Louis’ musical court to our modern ears in the form of Gigue, Gavotte, Saraband, and other dances. Author Evrard Titon du Tillet admired Marin Marais and commented on the musician and composer’s brilliance.

“Le Labyrinthe, where after having passed through several keys, touched diverse dissonances, and having marked with serious notes, then followed by quick and animated notes the uncertainty of man is lost in the labyrinth, he finally ends happily and finishes with a gracious and natural chaconne.” This gorgeous recording acts as a nice introduction to baroque music or an asset to a musical collection already in progress.

European premier vocal ensemble, Huelgas-Ensemble explores sacred polyphony of the Renaissance on their 2005 recording, Da Pacem Domine. Led by Paul Van Nevel, the mixed voice choir performs the repertoire of Jacobus De Kerle, including motets, a madrigal, a requiem and other work of the 16th century Flemish composer. Director, Paul Van Nevel provides us with rich liner notes which have been translated into several languages. While I would advise reading the liner notes to gain a historic and academic perspective of the complicated polyphony that appears on this recording, listening to the program which includes extracts from Missa Da Pacem Domine, the madrigal, Come nel mar and extracts from Missa Pro Defunctis, (a requiem), would be enough to satisfy the soul. The crystalline vocals and intriguing counterpoint keep one’s ears glued to their speakers. The ensemble’s interpretation of Jacobus De Kerle’s work could very well lead to a transcendental experience. And you can impress your colleagues by listening to long-forgotten music undergoing a rebirth.

The male vocal ensemble, Orlando Consort proves that exploring medieval and renaissance music can be loads of fun. The Rose, the Lily & the Whortleberry comes to us as a multimedia project including a hardback book with plenty of medieval and renaissance paintings depicting gardens, essays on gardens from those eras translated into several languages. That’s the eye candy part of the project, your ears will be pleasured with secular and sacred medieval and renaissance music sung a cappella.

The vocalists, Angus Smith (tenor), Mark Dobell (tenor), Donald Grieg (baritone), Robert Harre-Jones (countertenor), and guest bass vocalist, Robert McDonald begin their musical journey in Medieval France, (1250-1377) where they explore chansons and motets. Next stop Medieval England which also features motets and chansons (secular songs). And I will mention that the lyrics range from sacred to saucy with an emphasis on couples courting in the garden or religious references with double entendres. Then off we go to 15th and 16th century Spain, with a similar repertoire and then to Renaissance France, Italy and the Low Countries. In Italy, we are introduced to the secular madrigals. Some of the composers whose work appears on this recording include, Machaut, Trebor, Power, Brumel, Clemens non Papa, Gombert, those famous anonymous folks and others. And if you enjoy this fun ancient music excursion, check out Orlando Consort’s Food, Wine & Song also on Harmonia Mundi.

And now we are off to listen to a baroque opera, Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Purcell (1659-1695) originally composed this opera for a small ensemble to be performed at the English court of Charles II. The entire ensemble includes 9 vocalists which include the title characters, the queen Dido and her lover Aeneas, as well as, a handmaid, sorcerers, witches, a second woman and a Spirit. The title roles in the production directed by Rene Jacobs are performed by Lynne Dawson (Dido), Rosemary Joshua (Belinda) and Gerald Finley (Aeneas). Dawson’s arias possess a great deal of strength and passion. The dark witches and sorcerers not to be confused with healing witches, bring enough cackle and comic relief to the short dramatic performance to take the edge off of the tragic ending. And the other two leads, Rosemary Joshua, soprano and Gerald Finley, baritone also leave us with a satisfying and stunning performance.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment provides robust and lively accompaniment that alternates with brooding pathos. The orchestra includes, 9 violinists, 3 altos, 2 violin-cellos and 1 viola de gamba, 2 alto flutes, 1 bass flute, bassoon, clavichord, organ and 3 lute players. The orchestra is highlighted on the overture, The Triumphing Dance at the end of the first act, Prelude to the Witches, Echo Dance Furies, Ritornelle, The Grove Dance, Prelude to the final act and the Witches’ Dance, for those of you who enjoy baroque instrumental music. Everything you need to know to enjoy this baroque opera appears in the liner notes and the best part, this opera runs under 60 minutes. You can listen to this recording on a lunch break or as evening entertainment.

And here ends Part I of this article. Part II will be written and posted after I receive a few more Early Music CDs by post. Until then, enjoy your journey back to the Age of Enlightenment.

And please visit my transformed web site, Cranky Crow Whole Music, where I am now exploring music of several genres which I find healing and well, in a word, enlightening.

Read Part II: Return to the Age of Enlightenment Part II: Exploration of Music from the Medieval, Renaissance & Baroque Eras

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