New York Ensemble for Early Music

Istanpitta, Vol. 1: A Medieval Dance Band

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So-called early music (music from the Renaissance or Middle Ages) can sound strangely familiar to modern ears. It seems like folk music because it is a major ancestor of that genre; it resembles world music because it frequently contains elements that thrive today in Middle Eastern or Andalusian music; and it sounds like classical because it uses many of the same harmonic ideas (albeit in a more basic form) and because it is usually performed by classical musicians, who -- often unfortunately -- impose their notions of decorum upon the music. Happily, this recording of instrumental pieces from 14th-century Italy manages to surmount that obstacle. It is peppy and has atmosphere, and above all it is animated by rhythm. The great rhythm is surely due to the presence of renowned frame-drum player Glen Velez, a popular figure on world music and jazz albums. Also, director Frederick Renz has taken the liberty of writing parts for some of the pieces that had only one complex part, arguing in the notes that the musicians of the time would have known how to improvise accompaniment. Whether this is true or not, it does give the music extra texture that's very welcome.

Several tracks stand out. "Saltorello (II)/Trotto" is a lively piece for bagpipe, a clarinet-like instrument called a ciaramella, and frame drums. Its frequent changes in tempo create suspense and thoughtfulness in unexpected places. "Saltorello (IV)" is a midtempo dance for strings and Middle Eastern percussion. It evokes a mood of elegant melancholia more akin to Arabic than Western music. The best tracks feature percussion, but there are some very pretty ones which do not. This is early music not just for people who like Philip Pickett and David Munrow, but for those who like Radio Tarifa and the Kamkars too.

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