Insofar as it's possible to know the Italian music of the middle 14th century, Jacopo da Bologna seems to have been one of its leading lights. The Squarcialupi Codex, a large book of medieval music that fell into the hands of the Medici family, contains a number of his works. But they're a bit hard to grasp for a modern audience, and recordings of them are sparse. This one, originally recorded in 1985 by Swiss-American group PAN Project Ars Nova, also known as Ensemble P.A.N., still had few competitors when reissued in 2010 by the Ars Musici label. It's not unmusical, and it's useful to have, but one can wish for a recording that presents a clearer and more engaging picture of Jacopo's music. Consider the booklet notes, which are given in German, English, and French (the song texts are in the original language -- Latin or Italian -- and German only). They stress the lyrical content of Jacopo's mostly secular music, connecting it to the intrigues of the Visconti court of Milan and its mid-century ruler Luchino, said to have been poisoned by his unfaithful wife, Isabella Fieschi. One of the key exhibits adduced is the text of the madgrial Prima virtute, which is then performed instrumentally on the album. The vocal pieces are sparsely but cleanly accompanied on the medieval instruments popular in the mid-'80s: lute, cornett, rebec, fiddle, a small organ, and a few others, or sung without accompaniment; sometimes a mezzo soprano or countertenor sings accompanied, or there may be a group of unaccompanied voices. The musicians don't penetrate the surface of the pieces -- a tall order, it's true -- but they do offer a range of ways of thinking about the music, whose performance remains a matter of guesswork. A useful, clear, pleasant disc to have on hand for medieval music studies, formal or self-directed.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim