New Hampshire's Duo LiveOak is a living illustration of the current depth of the early music scene. The duo consists of a pair of New England musicians, soprano Nancy Knowles and string player and baritone Frank Wallace, who have performed together for a quarter century (not exclusively in the early music field, it's true), amassed a strong following, arranged their own recording sessions, and now formed their own label, Gyre, handling design, distribution, and marketing themselves. And from all accounts, they've made a decent living. On Piva (the title means "bagpipes" and is take from one of the instrumental selections included) they explore a range of Renaissance lute songs, for one or two voices, in Spanish, French, and Italian. On the Spanish-language selections, Wallace substitutes the less-often-heard vihuela de mano for the lute. It is Wallace who provides the instrumental pieces interspersed among the vocal selections.
The program is nicely structured. It opens with some very dark-hued Spanish songs; the very first piece, the anonymous Llaman a Teresica (They called to Teresica), has a stark, shocking text that immediately gets your attention. (Texts are given on a website; the URL given in the liner notes is wrong, but the correct site was just a few clicks away.) The French pieces, several of them more extended and ambitious constructions, are in the middle, and the recording ends on an upbeat note with Italian-language songs by the Flemish-born composers Verdelot and Arcadelt. Some may find a certain lack of spark in the interpretations of this pair, but judging by the enthusiastic receptions concerts of this material have already received, that's obviously not a universally shared view. Perhaps the bottom line is that the amateur ethos in early music performance is alive and well, and is exemplified by this disc. The sound, recorded in a small-town New Hampshire church, matches the performance: it is not striking, but it is homey.