“Dante’s Musical Journey”
San Miguel Chapel, Nov. 19
Since the notated repertoire of medieval music tends toward shortish pieces, at least apart from plainchant, it is hard to assemble it into effective full-length concert programs. But the performance at San Miguel Chapel on Nov. 19 showed that it can be done, and masterfully.
Singer Drew Minter and multi-instrumentalists Mark Rimple and Mary Springfels have worked together in various combinations over many years, developing a comfort level that let them convey their pieces with technical flair, ensemble security, and improvisatory freedom. Their concert, titled “Dante’s Musical Journey,” capped off a four-day Dante symposium organized by the Renesan Institute, and the well-prepared participants in that “lifelong-learning” event turned out in force, effectively filling what is billed as the oldest church in the United States. The program unrolled in a tripartite structure; that would have pleased medieval folks, who delighted in anything that suggested the Trinity. Here, the sections related to the three books of Dante’s Commedia, each piece referencing characters or specific ideas found respectively in the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. For example, the Lamento da Tristano, an anonymous instrumental number from a Tuscan manuscript inscribed in about 1400, memorializes the character Tristan, whom Dante encounters in the second circle of Hell, the last stop of those who erred through lustfulness. One could hardly go wrong with such a program opener; the haunting melody of the Lamento is one of the most beautiful in all of music. Stately melancholy infused it here, with Springfels playing vielle (a bowed string instrument), Rimple playing gittern (elsewhere he doubled on citole, both being plucked proto-guitars), and Minter adding the mournful pulse of a deep frame drum.
Although quite a lot can be determined about the performance practice of medieval music, a great deal remains speculative. That places the responsibility for the style of interpretations heavily on the shoulders of the performers. These three have earned their international reputations by combining scholarship with practical experimentation to establish accurate musical texts (no small challenge, given how greatly medieval notational systems differed from our own) and render them in a way that brings the music alive. This involved various approaches in the course of the evening. Minter, for example, possesses a rich, vibrant, low-lying countertenor, but he also sang in baritone register when that seemed best for a piece. Though never drawn to overacting, he conveyed the more text-oriented pieces with depictive specificity. His telling of a chivalric tale by the 12th-century troubadour Bertran de Born (a resident of the eighth circle of Hell) sometimes hovered between singing and speaking, and similar Sprechstimme informed his lyrical recitation of a passage from the Purgatorio.
Particularly welcome were rarely encountered examples of the highart style of 14th-century Italy, including Jacopo da Bologna’s madrigal “Aquil’altera” and a Sanctus by Lorenzo da Firenze. Minter rendered their spectacularly florid vocal lines with grace and precision — truly a bel canto of the Middle Ages. The contributions from bowed and plucked strings were not less elegant. A particularly appreciated detail was how the players segued seamlessly from tuning their instruments into the pieces via improvised preludes, a practice that is well documented but that few performers bother to honor. Recitals of medieval music can sometimes be a penance to endure, but this one ushered listeners directly to Paradiso. — James M. Keller