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I must confess that 13th Century French music has never ranked high in my listening priorities. Seemingly endless solo ballads and the strains of the hurdy-gurdy somehow don’t get my feet tapping or my soul soaring in the way that, say, a Praetorius dance or a Palestrina mass do. However, thanks to Andrew Lawrence-King and friends, I now find myself humming snatches of French medieval melodies in the shower! His latest disc follows the formula of his hugely successful Spanish-influenced Missa Mexicana: solos, ensembles and instrumental items performed with flair and imagination by fourteen singers and seven players, backed up by meticulous research and recorded in the wonderful acoustic of the Abbey of Saint-Michel-en-Thiérache at Aisne in France. The instruments used range from the vielle (rather like a hurdy-gurdy without the wheel, and considerably less raucous) and cornetto muto to the more familiar shawm, lute, harp and psaltery. Gautier de Coincy’s Miracles de Nostre Dame recount numerous miracles attributed to the Virgin Mary, interspersed with lyric prayers and songs. Gautier, a poet-singer and Prior of Vic-sur-Aisne near Beauvais, began to translate Latin miracle stories into French verse around 1218, using as a model trouvère love-poetry. His aim was to re-direct profane desires to religious ends. This he accomplished (to what we might consider an unhealthy degree) using a sensual, rich vocabulary and ingenious word-play; in his texts, earthly love “stinks and reeks”, while mystical love of the Virgin (“pure”; “honey-breasted”) will lead to eternal life. His music borrows heavily from trouvère songs, plainchant melodies and conductus settings of the Notre-Dame school. Ja pour hyver is a splendid example of this drawing-together of different strands of high and low art, featuring several different “low” refrains drawn from popular songs against the “high” trouvère rhapsody of the verses. The employment of a sophisticated array of improvisational techniques (drones, descants, etc.) which we have come to expect of the Harp Consort instrumentalists has been extended to the refrain singers, making for rich, varied textures and highly virtuosic ensemble singing. The solo singing is equally accomplished, and the reappearance of the same tune in different guises throughout the disc lends coherence to the collection. Add an illuminating booklet essay from Lawrence-King and the result is fascinating and captivating music-making which holds the ears from beginning to end.
Reviewed by Anne McAlister