Notes and Editorial Reviews
Of great value as an historical document. Sheds light on the manner and style of performance when musicological research was still in its infancy.
Any assessment of recordings from the 1950s of music of this period (1200-1700) must inevitably disregard the advances in scholarship and understanding of such music since the recordings were made: to consider such recordings in the light of modern musicology is to consider them using a false basis of comparison. The only fair basis for their consideration must be their musicality and the extent to which the interpretations serve the composers’ intentions in terms of their emotional impact: musicians have, after all, always written music to act as a means of emotional
expression, whether in the context of a celebratory song or of a religious ceremony; and these works were never intended for dissection by the musicologist’s knife.
Alfred Deller’s commitment to performing and recording pieces of a period that had hitherto been but little explored outside the rarefied atmosphere of the university lecture-hall is absolutely clear. However, I had difficulties with how this set might engage the listener in a meaningful way. The performances on the first disc, for instance, of sacred music of mediaeval France, have too little overall vitality and dynamic contrast – the acoustic, too, is unfortunate, the reverberation favouring higher frequencies and resulting in a rather harsh, tinny ambience that creates a sense of discomfort. The following secular works have rather more rhythmic vitality, but I find myself not wholly convinced by the choice of instrumentation: the effect produced by the combination of recorder and trombone is rather odd, leaving the listener to ask what the basis was for this interpretative decision.
Some of the performances suffer from a lack of clarity, which is an issue for concern given that this music has a horizontal, rather than a vertical basis, and, where the texture is too dense for the individual lines to be heard with distinctness and clarity, it robs the music of its natural vitality. This is especially evident, for example, in Guillaume de Machaut’s
Messe de Nostre-Dame (CD2), where the use of instruments (which could be questioned in this context) obscures the vocal parts, making both the counterpoint and the text difficult to hear with precision.
The fourth disc is, perhaps, the most enjoyable of the set, with some splendidly energetic continuo playing and, although the instrumentation, style, and manner of playing would not be countenanced today (or, at least, not in early-music circles) it reflects well the drama and intensity of the text. The performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s
Il Ballo delle Ingrate (CD5), too, is well-balanced, the lute placed prominently enough to provide an interesting enhancement of colour to the bowed strings’ tone, and with some lively and imaginative continuo playing throughout.
Although I would not choose these recordings as an introduction to works of this period, nor as particularly representative of music’s vitality, vigour and ingenuity, they are undoubtedly of great value as an historical document, and shed light on the manner and style of performance of such works when their discovery was recent and relevant musicological research still in its infancy.
-- Em Marshall-Luck, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut
Written: 14th Century; France
Leçons de tenébres by François Couperin
Written: 1713-1717; Paris, France
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