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Pantagruel, founded in Essen, Germany, in 2002, is made up of three early music specialists who also have backgrounds in popular music, jazz, dance, and theater and they bring the sensibilities of those influences to their vital and hugely entertaining performances, which they describe as "semi-staged." Even in an audio recording, it's easy to hear the extent to which their singing and playing are enlivened by their commitment to finding the dramatic impulse inherent in all these pieces. Their musicianship is impeccable, too, and makes the CD a joy to listen to. The works consist of Renaissance English songs, ballads, and instrumental pieces. Danish soprano Anna Maria Wierød has a subtle accent that effortlessly and believably conveys the distance the English language has come in 400 years; it's recognizable, but with an archaic, almost Chaucerian strangeness. Her voice is full and warm, capable of being piercing in its intense purity, and she deploys it with winning, unmannered charm. Dominik Schneider also sings, as well as playing a variety of flutes and gitterns, and Mark Wheeler plays lutes, citterns, and bandora. It would be inaccurate to say that they accompany Wierød because the three are such balanced partners in most of these pieces. They bring a thoroughly researched understanding to the music, but perform it with the rowdy spontaneity it calls for, a combination of skills that hasn't always been common in early music groups. The spirit of "Do what thou wilt," the motto of Rabelais' 1532 novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, is evident in the vivid liveliness of their performances. The sound is clean, natural, and nicely ambient. Highly recommended for fans of early music that has its roots in folk traditions, but even more so for anyone who has been scared off by the thought that historically informed treatment of this repertoire means dryly academic performances.

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