Suonare e Cantare

Alla Napoletana: Villanesche & Mascherate

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This disc appears in the series Les chants de la terre (Songs of the Earth) from France's Alpha label, which has previously featured ethnomusicological items such as music associated with the tarantella dance. The instrumental and voice production on this thoroughly enjoyable disc suggest folk music as well -- the singers throatily belt out their songs, and the instrumental texture, dominated by percussion and the buzzing chalumeaux and cornamuse, has plenty of noise. Yet the music actually comes from published sources -- a songbook from Naples in 1537 and various later collections of instrumental dances. The songs are still pretty funny at a distance of nearly 500 years. The villanesca and mascherata (or mask song) are both simple strophic song types familiar to those who've heard Jordi Savall's groundbreaking recordings of semi-popular Renaissance secular vocal music, but the French group Suonare e Cantare gives them a good deal more of the lowdown than Savall does. Its rough style is entirely appropriate to the texts of the songs, which might be said to puncture (or prick, to use a term these authors might have selected) the conventions of the courtly love song with raunch. Most of them open with a conventional stanza or two, inquiring about a woman's disfavor or offering, say, fine goods or instruction in a dance. Things go downhill from there ("For they are spindles from a certain land -- the more you spin them, the more they stay taut"); footnotes explain some of the more obscure references. The songs are interspersed with instrumental pieces, and the program as a whole has a high pitch of energy. Suonare e Cantare is coming at the semi-popular component of Renaissance music not from the elite direction but from the streets, so to speak, and the results are convincing. The tradition explored here had echoes in the tradition of secular polyphony, and several of the pieces here (check out Lasso's O belle fusa, track 2) represent an effort on the part of the players to imagine how nonliterate musicians might have realized polyphonic music -- something that, although not terribly common, is known to have occurred. It's Lasso like you've never heard him before, but like you should hear him at least once, for this music nicely illustrates the popular underpinnigs of the new genres of the late sixteenth century.

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