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Johan van Veen
MusicWeb International, October 2006

The late 16th century saw the birth of music specifically composed for string and wind instruments. Of course instrumental music was played before that, but mostly dance music or instrumental arrangements of vocal music. And as this kind of music was largely improvised very few of these arrangements were ever written down. As a result players of renaissance instruments have to look into collections of vocal music to find suitable repertoire. That is what the American ensemble Ciaramella has done. The music on this disc is taken from German sources of the 15th and 16th centuries. Some items are performed with voices and instruments.

In those days instruments were divided into two groups, the 'alta' and the 'bassa' families. The term 'alta' refers to loud instruments, like shawm, trumpet and sackbut, the 'bassa' instruments were stringed and plucked, harps and psalteries, but also recorders. On this disc we hear mostly the loud instruments, and some items are played with a consort of recorders. In addition a number of organ intavolations are played, which are taken from two important collections of organ transcriptions: the 'Buxheimer Orgelbuch' and the 'Orgeltabulatur' by Leonhard Kleber.

The pieces on the programme show a wide variety of techniques of composition, transcription and arrangement. It opens with a piece in 3 parts, with two equal upper parts turning around each other over a slowly progressing tenor part. Next are three versions of Guillaume Dufay's famous chanson Se la face ay pale. The original version is preceded and followed by two organ arrangements from the Buxheimer Orgelbuch.

Often manuscripts from the renaissance contain pieces without a text. That doesn't necessarily mean they were intended for instrumental performance. Stylistically there is little difference between such pieces and compositions with text, as the textless piece here shows when compared to the next piece, 'Gaude, virgo' (tracks 5 and 6). Sometimes it is difficult to identify a piece. It is not unheard of that a title is corrupted.

An important aspect of renaissance music is the close connection between secular and sacred music. There wasn't a watershed between those two categories: sometimes a sacred and a secular text were sung at the same time; sometimes the secular text was replaced by a sacred text. An example of this is track 7: the erotic text 'Wer ich eyn falck' is replaced by the religious 'Invicti regi jubilo'. The change from secular to sacred wasn't always only a matter of text: in this case the rhythm has changed considerably, which makes the sacred version much more solemn. Some sacred pieces are also changed, under the influence of the Reformation. 'Sancta Maria wohn uns bei' (track 17) is better known as 'Gott der Vater wohn uns bei', a German Lutheran hymn attributed to Martin Luther. But he used the existing melody and only changed those elements in the text which refer to the Virgin Mary.

Only when musicians have a thorough knowledge of the way music was performed in a certain period in music history can they perform it with a certain amount of freedom. That is certainly the case here, as the musicians of Ciaramella aren't afraid of adding parts to what they have found in manuscripts. This could give some impression of the improvisatory skills the players in the renaissance must have had. All the musicians are excellent players and the gorgeous sound of the wind instruments has been well recorded. The singers do a good job as well, even though their German pronunciation is by no means perfect.

This disc offers a fascinating overview of the repertoire played at festive occasions in the 15th and 16th centuries. It is a worthy tribute to the many - mostly anonymous - players who were delighting their audiences with their impressive skills and fine musicianship. And that is just what the members of Ciaramella do today.

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