Narcisso speculando
(Harmonia Mundi)

MALA PUNICA, PEDRO MEMELSDORFF, DIR.: Narcisso speculando (Harmonia Mundi) With the rise of a wealthy commercial class, and the concurrent decline of the feudal aristocracy, 14th century Italy saw the spread of a new secular humanism. Dante (1265-1321) and then Petrarch (1304-74) began to write poetry in Italian. In painting, Giotto (1266-1337) moved toward a more naturalistic representation. And in music, composers developed a new proportional notation that facilitated greater rhythmic flexibility and fostered an unprecedented lyricism.

Don Paolo di Marco (1355-1436), Benedictine abbot and tenorista, was among the second generation of Trecento composers who wrote primarily secular works, establishing three new musical/poetic forms of secular polyphony: the madrigal, the caccia, and the ballata. Of these three forms, the madrigal is the oldest, and was reserved for setting the most serious poetry. This madrigal, which has no relationship to the madrigal of the late Renaissance, was originally associated with the aristocracy, and gradually gave way in republican Florence to the more popular, dance-derived ballata.

Although, like his contemporaries, Paolo composed more ballatas than madrigals, he favored the older form until the end of his creative life. Narcisso speculando features six of Paolo's thirteen extant madrigals, along with two ballatas. The program is divided into three small sets separated by instrumental istampitas, none of which were composed by Paolo.

Polyphony of the Trecento differs from its historical predecessors, the conductus and the motet, in two important respects, both of which make this music comparatively more comprehensible to modern ears: 1) poetic and musical phrases coincide and are clearly articulated, and 2) the compositions are unified, through the use of a single text in all voices, and through imitative repetition of musical phrases between voices.

Nonetheless, the music of the Trecento is challenging, and even experienced classical music listeners may require some help in understanding the conception. Typically, Paolo's madrigals consist of two or three three-line poetic stanzas, terzetti, each sung to the same music, followed by a two-line ritornello, sung to different music in another meter. With one exception, the three-part "Godi Firenze," all of the madrigals here are composed for two singers (cantus and tenor), of which the upper voice is the more important.

The cantus always begins the piece. For subsequent phrases, either voice may enter first, but with the exception of the last syllable of each line, the voices rarely sing the same words simultaneously. The lines of text are invariably set syllabically, framed by extended melismas (intricate non-texted passage work), sung to the first and penultimate syllables. In the texted portions of these melodic lines, the two voices rapidly alternate syllables, thereby creating a pulse and intensifying the emotion. In the more relaxed surrounding melismas, the voices imitatively exchange longer melodic sequences.

Mala Punica, founded in 1987, by its director and flutist Pedro Memelsdorff, has established itself, through a series of recordings on Arcana and Erato, as the foremost proponent of the music of the Trecento, and of the subsequent period, the Ars Subtilior. For this new disc and new label, Memelsdorff, has assembled his strongest group of singers to date, fully capable of conveying the rhythmic and emotional subtleties of the melismas.

The listener should be forewarned, however, that Mala Punica takes some liberties with the score. The group favors clothing the vocal lines (often quite sensitively) in varied improvised textures performed on plucked and bowed instruments, as well as bells and recorders. And in two instances, Memelsdorff adds a third vocal part to the third terzetto of two-part madrigals. These additional parts essentially shadow the existing cantus line, anticipating or repeating its melismatic sequences. While varying the listening experience and heightening the drama, these additional parts also introduce a rhythmic complexity not typical of the period.

There is of course no correct way to perform this music. And there is no denying that Mala Punica's interpretations are extraordinarily imaginative--historically, musically, and emotionally. Narcisso speculando is easily the most compelling recording of Trecento music yet available, and gives us an opportunity to hear Italian lyricism at its inception.

© 2002 David Tegnell
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