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Trionfo d'Amore e della Morte, Florentine Music For A Medici Procession
Piffaro, The Renaissance Band; The Concord Ensemble
CD No.: Dorian DOR-90312

Adew Dundee, Early Music Of Scotland
The Baltimore Consort
CD No.: Dorian DOR-90314

Henry VIII And His Six Wives
David Munrow Conducting The Early Music Consort Of London
CD No.: Testament SBT 1250

Review By John Shinners
Click here to e-mail reviewer


SACD Number: Various (See Above) 


  These three discs span three centuries: Medicean Florence in the late 15th/early 16th centuries, Tudor England, and 17th-century Scotland. Together they offer an instructive window into the history and possibilities of historically informed performances of early music.

The Renaissance band Piffaro has a reputation for intelligent performing and programming — sometimes perhaps too intelligent: I thought their last album, Music from the Odhecaton (Dorian, 2001) celebrating the 500th anniversary of printed music, a shade esoteric. But here, teamed with the male vocal quintet Concord Ensemble, they have produced one of the most varied and satisfying programs of Renaissance music I can recall.

The conceit of the disc is to take us on a musical tour of Florence during the rise and fall — and resurrection — of its Medici princes. To this end it offers everything from secular festival songs to sacred chant, from court music to street music, from popular ballads to art song, from vocal works to instrumental consort music.  Altogether we get 29 works in a generous and beautifully conceived 72-minute program.

Though no piece is dull here, among the highlights are the anonymous "Vilana, che tu sa far," a slightly bawdy song about the seduction of a shepherd girl that ends with a satiric Kyrie eleison, and court composer Heinrich Isaac's "A la battaglia," a detailed musical muster of prominent Florentines to the battle lines. The anonymous song "Torna, torna" is irresistible.  A recruiting song by anonymous Dominican friars, it sets a simple text about religious conversion, but its melody is a driving folk dance — the 15th-century equivalent of "Christian rock."

Piffaro are the headliners here, and they bring a marvelous array of instruments — shawms, recorders, sackbuts, trumpets and all sorts of strings and percussion — to this concert, all played expertly and colorfully. But I found myself most taken by the pieces the Concord Ensemble performs. Their five voices illuminate a variety of vocal styles and genres, and they sing with marvelous spirit and nuance. With this disc in hand, a listener has a delightful and amazingly thorough introduction to the diversity of Italian Renaissance music, especially since it is accompanied by intelligent and informative notes and translations of all the songs.

The title Trionfo d'Amore e della Morte means, of course, the Triumph of Love and Death; the program takes us from love songs to funeral chants for bygone Medicis. But the collaboration of Piffaro and the Concord Ensemble is also a triumph in this excellent disc.

The Baltimore Consort, who always produce thoughtful and engaging programs, do not disappoint in their disc, Adew Dundee. But their ability to please is limited to a degree by what they have to work with here. I doff my glengarry in respect for Enjoy the Music's Scottish readers, but seventeenth-century Scotland was a cultural backwater, depending on imported talent to design its most sophisticated music. This disc, therefore, is much more a collection of folk songs than works crafted by academy-trained composers. Much of the music on the disc is preserved in very sketchy outlines, which demand a fair amount of improvisation from the Baltimore Consort. The musicians treat this material with wit and intelligence, but it can sound over-produced and tinged with modern musical sensibilities. There may be 17th-century precedents, but some of the guitar riffs here sound more like modern acoustic rock than genuine folk song.  These reservations aside, this is still a disc full of charm, even if its instrumental and vocal palette is less varied than Trionfo d'Amore e della Morte.  Soprano Custer LaRue performs all the songs here with a light, appealing voice and considerable allure. Try to resist the lilt in her voice in the catchy ditty "The gowans are gay."

Adew Dundee does not make heavy demands on its listeners, and it is best taken in small doses to avoid the monotony inherent in its limited sources; but its pleasures are many.

Craig D. Dory produced both Adew Dundee and Trionfo d'Amore e della Morte and he also helped engineer them. Both were recorded in the slightly reverberant Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Albany, New York. They have a warm, full-bodied sound that makes all the performers vividly present and realistically placed.

David Munrow's suicide in 1976 cut short the career of one of the pioneers and most zealous advocates of the movement for historically informed performance.  Had he lived, he would be just 62 now.  Given how much he did for early music during his short life, we can only mourn what was lost to music by his death.

On this soundtrack from the film Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972) we have music which might not be instantly associated with his name — I had no idea he had a hand in the film — but which probably reached a larger audience than anything else he recorded.  At that time Munrow pointed out that this was the first film scored entirely for historical instruments, and several of the authentic pieces he used were at the time unpublished. The soundtrack is a mix: half of it is period pieces, some English, some not, and the other half is music Munrow himself composed in stilo antico for the film. Munrow's own faux Tudor pieces are generally convincing, though they sometimes slip into a moody1970s style that betrays their provenance.

Listening to the disc, it is disconcerting to hear something that sounds 16th-century until its 20th-century pants peek out from underneath the costume.  (Musical trivia: improbably, Munrow also wrote the score for Zardoz, director John Boorman's only foray into science fiction and certainly Sean Connery's oddest film.)

The last third of the disc is from Munrow's posthumous album Greensleeves to a Ground (1977), a collection of instrumental arrangements mostly from Elizabethan songbooks. From the perspective of thirty years of scholarship into early music, most musicologists would now quibble with Munrow's overly ornamented orchestrations in both recordings: 16th-century music would not have been as quick to mix instrumental colors as elaborately as he does here.  But that is a small point and does not diminish the pleasures of the music.

I have only the dimmest memory of Henry VIII and his Six Wives.  Back then, as a college freshman, I had a hard enough time keeping the Greeks and the Romans straight — much less the intricacies of Tudor history.  I think I've probably conflated this film with Masterpiece Theatre's mini-series from the year before about Henry's daughter, Elizabeth R, starring the incomparable Glenda Jackson. So when I listen to the various cuts from this program I have no context for the dramatic action they support. Lacking this frame, Munrow's soundtrack feels disjointed and too eclectic, especially with its mix of the real and counterfeit.  The addition of more Tudor music at the end of the disc is generous of Testament, but it further confuses the program. This is probably a disc best enjoyed in bits and pieces programmed by each listener. But it is also a valuable testament to the enormous and diverse talents of David Munrow.

The recording, remastered by Testament from the EMI originals, generally wears its age well, though when the full ensemble plays the sound can lose its usually well defined depth and sound a little muddy.



Piffaro, Trionfo d'Amore e della Morte



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The Baltimore Consort, Adew Dundee



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David Munrow, Henry VIII and his Six Wives



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