(Rolf Lislevand – archlute, Baroque guitar, theorbo; Arianna Savall – triple harp, voice; Pedro Estevan – percussion; Bjørn Kjellemyr – colascione, doublebass; Guido Morini – organ, clavichord; Marco Ambrosini – viola d’amore a chiavi; Thor-Harald Johnsen – chitarra battente)
Talk about crossover! This is an album which should speak eloquently to a really wide variety of listeners, though it is the work of a noted Norwegian guitarist/lutenist who specializes in the early music field. I have to admit that aside from harpsichord literature I don’t personally have much interest in early instrumental music and even less in early vocal music. Yet I found this unique disc completely captivating. It would be interesting to play it for friends without any identification at all and see what they think it is. Sometimes it strikes me as sounding like Windham Hill-type open-tuned guitar improvisations; other times with unusual percussion accompaniment it sounds like some sort of Brazilian folk music, and occasionally when the entire septet gets in a groove it begins to swing like a small jazz ensemble.
Arianna Savall’s (of the famous Savall family early music specialists) lovely voice soars over the accompaniment of her small harp and the rest of the players and places the music more in a Renaissance setting on those of the 17 tracks on which there is a vocal line. I wish there was some explanation of exactly what a couple of these instruments are: such as the colascione and hyckelharpa. But being ECM notes, one gets many great session photos but little text. The subtle low-level sounds of instruments such as the lute and clavichord – which are often almost lost in a typical concert stage performance – are here picked up by close micing in the studio and mixed into a very different sort of virtual ensemble than one would normally hear today or even have heard back in the 18th century.
The album title (as well as its mostly unfamiliar performer) may compromise its success with some U.S. listeners. It comes from the musical concept proclaimed in Florence at the beginning of the 17th century as a reaction to the dense polyphony of the earlier period. The artists, philosophers and scholars involved felt that the style of music had become hidebound and not suited to the need for modern human beings to express their emotions and spirituality. This was the new way of thinking about music – Nuove Musiche – and composers such as Monteverdi and Frescobaldi led the effort in creating new works in an entirely different, simpler and more expressive style.
Lislevand’s essay in the note booklet is most intriguing. He is thoroughly trained in the latest musicological research on the proper and authentic way to interpret early music. However, he states: “As far as I’m concerned, reconstruction is not really interesting at all. Do we really want to act as if we hadn’t heard any music between 1600 and the present day? I think that would be dishonest. With this recording we say goodbye once and for all to early music’s authenticity creed.” And so they do – with a vengeance! Most of the first dozen tracks on the disc are based on the passacaglia form – improvised variations on a descending diatonic fourth. The passacaglia became the cantus firmus for much of music throughout Europe for five centuries. Other tracks are based on the toccata – a touch-piece improvisation. The ensemble begins with a composed toccata by a composer of the period, and then takes it into new realms of time and space “guided by the voices of our ancient instruments.” Truly an “ear-opening experience” – as Charles Ives would have said.
— John Sunier