Monday, 11 June 2018

Lady with an Ermine – Music of the Spanish Renaissance

It seems to be the best record of Renaissance music released in the age of CDs. Looking at today’s gorgeous assortment of Early Music you can immediately see that my post is going to be heavily biased, which I do not mind the least.

It differs from the rest of the CDs for sure; the approach is a bit more special with the punctuation falling on unusual places. 

Let us proceed from outside to inside and see what makes this album so nice for me.
Holding it in your hand you feel that the artwork is flawless, no oddity hitherto as is the custom with Alpha records. It is a publishing company with high visual culture. The cover shows a segment of a beautiful El Greco painting, inside you find the entire piece, the Lady with an Ermine.

I seem to be in a special relationship with ladies with an ermine.

And, naturally, a short essay about the painting, the era and the musical connections.
The title is Ay Luna; we are familiar with it for it was famous in the past as well and it is even today. We know of the Moon and the relating mirror existence and the Melancholy which provides the metaphysical basis of our pseudo world.

The name of the ensemble is Unda Maris - there is a fine feeling of mortality here as this formation set up never again albeit 14 years have passed, so something that Saint-Exupéry wrote about happened, that is, an intention, a desire, a will was there initially and the sailing boat was made out of it to go the Moluccas and this will gathered together the few musicians so that they realise this purely intellectual content producing what we call the Black Ay Luna record today or we simply say Alpha064.

Unda Maris is interesting because of other things too. Its literal meaning is ‘under the sea’ but it is only an analogy of the real metaphysical meaning: unda maris is a special register on the early organs. We can presume that there is a portative or some little old organ here; really, one of the oldest keyboard instruments in France - the organ of Lorris-en-Gatinais - was used for the record. 

This register, i.e., a row of pipes is special for it is a bit out of tune compared to the rest of organs, all the pipes, but why? If it is connected to any other registers on the organ then a weird ‘floating’ is produced according to the rules of interference. It is not mechanically construed but sound-wise, that is, acoustically emerging or rather upheaving.

Oddly, there is no unda maris like this on the organ among the enlisted registers, however, Unda Maris achieved this nearly mythical effect with the instrumentation. 
How could they? Here comes the title song, Ay Luna, in the middle, and, indeed, you can hear some fine mixture of cither, harp and vihuela parts wreathing pompously in the background.

I have never heard anything like this before.
The singer, Giullemette Laurens is a terrific favourite of mine. Her voice is as if she was painting - it is the precise expression. A few things come up at this point expounded in the booklet in lengthy detail.

Sound-painting, yes, this expression is included in the old Spanish tractate, the year is around 1550. According to today’s conception, these old villanelles are of a strophic nature - what does it mean?, to put it simply, strophes and stanzas are repeated with the music remaining nearly unchanged. Here is what was thought differently and conceived further in the Renaissance. The words ‘circa’ or ‘nearly’ mean ‘no’ too; so the difference took the essential place - the tonal divergences which bring musicality to places where you would expect monotony and they appear as some extraordinary colour. Thus your heart need not sink for how much the music can catch and absorb you without understanding the lyrics.

Guillemette’s voice is fantastic. At times her voice is upsweeping so much that it exceeds the volume of women’s crying and sometimes it is continually falling to the level of some fine pale whisper.

The whole record is a transparent section from the golden age of the Spanish Renaissance. However, this is a French orchestra, on top all, playing instruments built mainly in Italian style with an intense Flemish influence. How weird it is that the tuning is 408 Hz more or less; the entire record is more or less for we are not stuck either in the artificial ‘A’ sound of the tuning machine or in the intricacy of the part tables or the Art of the Fugue. 

Rather, there is an outbreak or wonderful sorrow, the defeat of Alhambra and the triumph of the Christian champions,
or the sigh of the hapless woman in love who soaks her face in her own bitter tears instead of water and lemon. 

Or there is the favourite piece of King Charles V which he woke up and went to sleep with left to us.

And Ludovico’s name and harp turn up - the legendary Harp of Ludovico, the court harpist of Ferdinand of Aragon. 
No piece composed on his own was found then why is he legendary? 
For he was said to be able to pluck all the strings on his instrument - yet, why is it a big deal? Well, because the instrument was a harp with a single row of strings, i.e., the chromatic scale - it is impossible that the harp contained it - yet, Ludovico was able to bring out all the sounds with some secret grasp, which only keyboardists could do the time. 

Mudarra did something similar on vihuela which had only 5 strings. He simply retuned the instrument when needed in the keynote but it is impossible while playing - did he use two instruments at once?? We know not. 

We do not know either what mysterious power Narvaez had. He ‘witchcrafted’ the king with his plunk and he could not stand up out of delight and started to cry, yes, the fearless warlord who wore an armour of 80 kg in the battles while chopping the enemies …

The sources are the earliest collections bearing the names of the vihuelists who ended up in the court of the Spanish king - Musica para Tecla, Arpa and Vihuela - it was the classical formula, so it is not worth arguing about which of the three instruments the given piece was sounded on. 

These collections were tractates at the same time, that is, besides the music notes there were lengthy instructions and recommendations for the sound figuration, the correct rhythm, the changes of accords and the ornamentation, the construction of harmonies or the application of falses, the order of fingers and the start of sounds as well as the rolling of the eyes and the maintenance of the music instrument.

And, the relevant point today, sometimes complex metaphysical short essays too.
For instance, several tractates expound a phenomenon of the ornamentation and improvisation well-known the time - it is called grăce, grace notes in English, notes de gout in French, maniero in Italian, in Hungarian grácia. Well, this something is an extraordinary grace, a mode, a delicacy in the performance. Many contemplated about this imponderable thing, e.g., the philosophical Castiglione suspected the Latin ‘gratuitous’ which means a sort of freedom, spontaneity or some individual style.

It was clear during the Renaissance that there is nothing to be done with the music components, sounds, sound spaces, rhythm, beat, intervals, ornaments and others for they are ready with proper practice. The really important task is to create nexus, relation, harmony, a sort of fragile upper balance.

Some kind of discretion. Or even a noble disdain of the rules? And, this grăce cannot be measured or taught or explained; it can only be circumscribed. It is there or it isn’t. Folks in the past, presumably rightfully, regarded it as a gift from above, a talent from Heavens.

That people pondered about these things 500 years ago makes me amazed.
Mainly because it makes me able to decide whether I like a record or a performer or not. That's why I like that somebody is not playing perfectly yet but has a secret fire inside. 
How is it possible to keep listening to a 3-accord Folia variation for 20 minutes with great grace without which it would be annoying monotony? 
Why are there performers even if famous where everything is perfect, no fault found, indeed, not artificial, no mechanical donkey work, the balance is correct, all is fine - yet, we should not just be forced to listen to them.

I see that the later pieces of music getting more and more complicated - less and less need this extra magic; that a complicated well-practiced Bach fugue can be enjoyed without this maniero by those fond of it. It is not mud-slinging or pecking but, simply, that kind of music is not based on this kind of magic but some other.

This record seems like the auditory appendix of the above argumentation about grăce. It emerges at the first sound and lasts to the last. The final line of the booklet - the ensemble attempted to realise this intellectual content by pinpointing at the infiniteness of sound combinations - proves to be fully true.

Well, now is it Highly recommended?

Obviously, it is indeed, however, this record is a much dearer treasure and my heart breaks that it gets rushed through the roll-downs of Facebook jammed between a toothpaste commercial and the pic of a cute kitten and the less-than-a-minute hurry-scurries in Youtube. 

But I know and I am fully sure that a couple of people will order this black Ay Luna and they will unwrap the foil, sniff at it, pour a glass of fine wine or a cup of coffee, take a seat and take some minutes looking at the Lady with an Ermine before they insert it into the player.

This article has been written for them.

Translated by Kenesei Andrea

Thank you for the images.