INKPOT#74 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: On the Banks of the Seine. Dufay Collective (Chandos)
On the Banks of the Seine
Music of the Trouvres Dance: Jaloie lautrier Ses tres dous regars Cest la fins Prends i garde Pucelete/Je languis/Domino On parole/A Paris/Frse nouvele Dance: Les un pins Volez vous que je vous proi H Dieus, quant verrai Tant con je vivrai Fines amouretes La douours del tens novel Dance: La douours En ung vergier Dame or sui tras Chanter voel par grant amour Quant voi la flor nouvele L’autre jour par un matin Amor potest Dieus soit en cheste maison Je chevauchoie lautrier Dance: Je chevauchoie lautrier
The Dufay Collective with Vivien Ellis
CHANDOS New Direction CHAN 9513
This review is generously sponsored by HMV Singapore.
by Chia Han-Leon
Trouvre: Like the troubadours, but worked in the north of France, writing in the langue d’oil, which eventually became modern French. About 2130 trouvre poems have been catalogued to date, with two-thirds of their music preserved. William Lyons, a member of the Collective, includes an essay here that even though leaves quite a few unanswered questions, does pique one’s interest. Specifically, he writes about the way minstrels and jongleurs were subject to “Entertainment Rules” in 13-14th century Paris: “No trumpeters or other minstrels may leave a feast before it is finished”, for example. But with such entertainment, I wouldn’t leave even after the coffee.Many of the songs presented here, cast in various dialects from the region up to England, are about love (surprise, surprise). But there are the usual “guest” themes: God, marketing (in this case, fresh strawberries…), love (betrayal), God and love (of a woman), and more love (sickness)
The pieces are sung in sequences, so that the mood of one flows into the other – before you know it, several tracks have passed. The resourcefulness of the Dufay Collective ensures no sense of monotony. After a merry introductory dance for shawm and long trumpet, the Collective launch the Guillaume d’Amiens sequence. This features three songs: the first, Ses tres dous regars, at a swaying moderate pace for all the voices; the second, C’est la fins, picks up the pace and finally handclaps accompany the quick Prends i garde. Listening to these, the music accumulates tempo and general “intensity”, creating a sense of growth.
Being the silly cultural purist that I am, I was at first a touch suspicious of the idea of a British group singing what is an old “French” language. Of course, my doubts were much assuaged by having the opportunity to see, hear and speak to the Collective when they came here in January 1999.
The men occasionally, as in A Dieu commant amouretes from the Adam de la Hale sequence, sound like a group of bagpipes or shawms buzzing and humming together. This back-of-the-throat, nasal vocal tone will be a matter of taste. I can assure the reader that this style is quite deliberate. I can easily picture their straight-faced, detached looks as they sing this, in a sense portraying the vast anonymity of most Medieval musicians. Having heard them sing ‘live’, my view then was that this works better with English words rather than the more poetic Italic languages such as the ones here. It is somewhat monotonous but not always uneffective, and at the very least evokes a different world. Dame or sui tras (18: “Lady, now I am betrayed”) is sung with a tinge of sorrow which reflects the lyrics.
Instrumental dances form interludes in the album (as is usual with many Early Music theme-compilation albums). My favourite are the string pieces, particularly the anonymous La septieme estampie Real featuring the evocative glitter of harp, lute, psaltery and gittern. The instrumental setting of La douours for recorder duet and vielle is also enjoyable, as is the lively bagpipe duet of the En ung vergier (17).
The other significant British group which has done music from this source and era is of course, Gothic Voices. They were one of the first groups to introduce me to Early Music, but after a few years of listening to their many Hyperion records, I must admit their style bored me. Generally, it is smooth and quite uniform, beautiful but in the long run bland and rigid. The Dufay Collective has more special qualities – they somehow achieve a freer sense of utterance, and a far more varied tone compared to their more mannered rivals.
But to be fair, no one is exactly sure how these 700+ year-old songs should be performed. Two anonymous songs, Pucelete and On parole, are here sung also in a rigid manner, which I still have the nagging feeling should be livelier, or at least more intense. The Adam de la Hale sequence involve only the male voices, singing five songs depicting the protagonist who must make a journey (A Dieu commant amouretes) who further laments on having to leave his lover. Again, the style is rigid, heavy and almost… like monks chanting in a monastery sometimes.
Mensural notation of the 13th to 16th centuries is defined as demanding that each note/rest has strictly defined time values, and this system is often used by Early Music groups (in particular the British ones) to perform this music. But, based entirely on gut feeling (and not scholastic research, which I suspect has to do with this style), I’m not convinced that you can or should sing lines like “I rejoice when I see you;/ Have mercy on me,/ Lady, I beseech you” or “So I shall send a message to my love,/ Who is graceful and pretty,/ And so delightful” – with such monkish seriousness. Since mensural notation is the basis of modern notation, and we “understand” Baroque dance, swing and rubato… why not be a little more “lively”? (Had to get all this off my chest – feel so much better now).
Anyway, this is where I am grateful for Vivien Ellis, the “lead singer” of whom the Dufay Collective is often “with”. In her presence, the group achieves a unique colour contrast between Ms Ellis’ open, thrown sound and the distinctive sextet of the main members. There is, I suspect, something about the choice of the harmony in the choral refrains which is unique to the Collective.
But oh how I love this woman’s voice – Ellis can be sweet and lullabic, as in Volez cous que je vous chant (8: “Would you like me to sing to you” – yes please) but can also be boyish in tone (15: La douours del tens novel), but is always charming in a fresh, open-voiced manner. Her voice has a distinctively youthful, feminine tone which is very pleasant and soothing, and her handling of vibrato is very admirable. Her phrases are invariably beautifully turned and her lines lightly intensely shaped. Sometimes, there is this… little tingling joy and beauty to her singing.
Try her solo rendition of Chanter voel par grant amour (19: “Out of great love I wish to sing”), with its calm proclamation of Mary Magdalen’s repentance and absolution. Notice how the album continues the quiet atmosphere with three instrumental pieces, each one shifting the mood from wistful to cheerful. The album’s title comes from the penultimate work Je chevauchoie lautrier (“I was riding the other day/ On the bank of the River Seine”), which is sung first, and then treated instrumentally.
A mixed bag with more that is enjoyable than not – I certainly won’t want to miss Vivien Ellis, and you can hear more of her in the even better Miracles album, also by the Collective.
445: 5.4.1999. up.9.4.1999 Chia Han-Leon