ROLF LISLEVAND Diminuito
ECM New Series 476 3317
‘Bringing early music to life’ is a phrase used to cover a multitude of early music sins: there’s a whole raft of lazy scholarship (and dodgy recordings) out there that hide under the skirts of the Great Improvisation Excuse. Luckily for us, there are also plenty of fine recordings, where extensive research meets musical inspiration and produces something that is much greater than the sum of its parts.
Rolf Lislevand’s new disc falls into this second category. Following his imaginative take on the seconda pratica on 2007’s Nuove Musiche (ECM) he turns his attention to the virtuoso lute music of the renaissance. And because it’s Lislevand this isn’t just another disc of plucked strings to add to your collection, but something to make you sit up and think. Over the course of the programme, he offers us a performer’s view of the art of diminution (or division, double, passaggio or glosa, depending on where you come from).
The lute music is extraordinary in itself: in much the same way that jazz players improvise on standards, renaissance composers (Diego Ortiz and Giovanni Antonio Terzi feature heavily in this recording) took well-loved contemporary tunes and dolled them up – often to considerably virtuosic heights – by adding embellishments, reducing note values and so on; in short turning a plaintive melody suitable for voice into a florid and exciting contrapuntal work for lute.
Improvisation looms large here and Lislevand doesn’t miss an opportunity. “Do we really want to pretend that nothing happened in music between 1550 and today?” he pointedly asks in his booklet note. To this end, he is joined by an impressive ensemble comprising triple harp, nyckelharpa (similar to a bowed hurdy-gurdy), chitarra battente, vihuela de mano, clavichord, chamber organ, colascione, percussion, and two-thirds of Scandinavian vocal trio Trio Medieval. Together they make an impressive noise and there’s rarely any lack of clarity – indeed the plucked strings are beautifully miked and the rich acoustic, in the Benedictine monastery of Propstei St Gerold in Austria, adds an appealing warmth to the texture.
The first three tracks – Vincenzo Capirola’s Ricercata prima, and a vibrant saltarello and piva by Joan ambrosio Dalza – are really just entrées before the main course. Here, in a 10-minute extravaganza, we get Terzi’s diminution on Petit Jacquet, followed by the original chanson melody supported by Ortiz’s Quinta pars. These three constituent parts form the basis for some – pretty funky – variation and improvisation, before we return to the diminution. It’s a reasonably complex form, and while Lislevand admits to a bit of tinkering with individual parts which may annoy the purists, the outcome is successful; an interesting take on the music that bears a good deal of repeated listening – and is musically appealing.
Despite the scholarship that backs up this disc, this is a gloriously unserious performance, one that revels in its cheek and blows a renaissance raspberry at any po-faced early music bore. Lislevand has created an album in which the large-scale structure is as carefully thought out as the quickest diminutions, and it’s a joy to listen to.