La Morra resounds in courtly songs of love and intrigue for Music Before 1800

Mon May 06, 2024 at 2:26 pm
Early music ensemble La Morra

In his inaugural season as artistic director of the venerable concert series Music Before 1800, Bill Barclay has boldly gone where few early music series have gone before, into genres, countries, and cultural moments far beyond its standard fare of medieval and Renaissance music.

Barclay’s final surprise, closing out his season Sunday afternoon at Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights, was no surprise at all: Music Before 1800 reaffirming its mission to present the New York debut of an excellent ensemble from one of the early music centers of Europe.

On Sunday La Morra, a flexible vocal-instrumental group based in the cosmopolitan city of Basel, Switzerland, delved into the life of medieval courts and came up with an agreeably varied program about love, praising the ruler, and (on the other hand) spiritual aspiration. Tension between the worldly and the divine animated the performance and gave the concert its overall title, named “O ciecho mondo!” (O Blind World!), from a song by Jacopo da Bologna.

The 14th-century master Guillaume de Machaut was the biggest name on the bill, but the contributions of contemporaries such as Jacopo and Jaquemart le Cuvelier, and the later generation of Petrus Wilhelmi de Grudencz and Don Paolo da Firenze (and of course the ubiquitous Anonymous), proved equally attractive in La Morra’s spirited renderings.

Recordings and music history courses can only suggest the vitality of this music. It took the intensely present resonance of Corpus Christi’s nave to fully convey the delicacy of the musicians’ phrasing and the sensuous delight of their purely tuned thirds, fifths, and octaves—most notable, of course, in the vocal solos and duets of countertenor Doron Schleifer and tenor Ivo Haun de Oliveira, but evident also in the expressive playing of lutenist Michał Gondko, fiddler Vojtěch Jakl, and keyboard and recorder player Corina Marti.

The ensemble artfully shifted the mix from unaccompanied vocals to instrumental numbers to songs for the whole band. The harpsichord-like twang of Gondko’s plectrum lute provided a firm foundation for many of the pieces, while Jakl’s agile fiddling filled in the texture admirably.

Marti topped the group with sweet, sustained tone in four different sizes of recorders, but contributed most strikingly (so to speak) on the hammered clavicimbalum, a sort of keyed 14th-century dulcimer that appeared to be an ancestor of both the harpsichord and the fortepiano. Her expert manipulation of the keys produced nuances of loud and soft in the instrument’s silvery tone that wouldn’t be possible on later generations of harpsichords, with their plectrum action instead of hammers.

Schleifer’s penetrating, heady countertenor provided a timbral contrast to the broad, chesty tenor of Haun de Oliveira. Still, in their unaccompanied duet “Già per gran nobeltà” by Johannes Tourout, the straight, vibratoless tone of the two voices intertwined deliciously, making the church ring with their pure intervals.

After an invocatory “Gloria Patri” for the full ensemble, two lively love songs by Machaut, “Foy porter” and “Douce dame jolie,” bookended three anonymous songs in instrumental versions to make a romantic bundle. The focus shifted to monarchs in elaborate praise songs such as le Cuvelier’s “Se Galaas” and Mikolaj Radomski’s “Hystorigraphi aciem,” then to the Virgin Mary in Tourout’s “O gloriosa regina mundi” and the prayer songs of de Grudencz.

In “O ciecho mondo,” another luminous vocal duet, the singers vowed to forswear this corrupting world in favor of divine peace, but the program concluded with two songs of Don Paulo, “La vaga luce” and “Amor mi stringe,” which the program amusingly described as “an abbot trapped by the god of Love.”

That was the cue for Machaut to return, in an upbeat encore appropriately titled “Quant je sui mis au retour” (“When I come back”), for which, in a little bit of showing off, Marti played two soprano recorders simultaneously.

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