Armonia Nova‘s performance of French love songs from the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries (with special guest performer Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek) at St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill on Friday night, the penultimate concert in the Washington Early Music Festival, bridged the gap between medieval times and ours, sounding strikingly immediate and real.
Constance Whiteside, historical harpist, artistic director of Armonia Nova, and co-founder and director of the WEMF, compared the songs’ rhythmic complexity to that of jazz, even going so far as to say “I kind of like to think of [Guillaume de] Machaut as the Cab Calloway of the 14th century.” The relentless juxtaposition of duple and triple rhythms in Machaut’s songs (particularly the “Chanson balladee” that opened the concert) showed where she was coming from, and the medieval scales, with their intervals of differing sweetness and “crunch,” gave a blue feel to some of the harmonies.
Whiteside also improvised solos before many of the songs, playing deftly in and around the song’s harmonies and melodies in ways any jazz accompanist would recognize. And when she and early violinist Craig Resta (here fiddlin’ the vielle) essayed instrumental numbers, they threw in a little sparkle; Resta’s “La seste estampie real,” from the Paris Bibliotheque, had an intense rhythmic spring, and in “Hont paur,” from the Faenza codex, Whiteside suspended the melody in the air like a string of jewels, with the perfect distance between them to just barely hint at a dance.
Still, when you’re listening to songs, you’re mostly listening to the singers. In her remarks, Whiteside also correctly noted that the matters of the heart with which these songs concern themselves — bliss, lamentation, jealousy, yearning, et alia — continue to bedevil Homo sapiens to this day. Horner-Kwiatek and Armonia Nova’s soprano Allison Mondel, mezzo/alto Marjorie Bunday, and countertenor Jay White made sure that the emotions came to us across the centuries.
We got a comic battle-of-the-sexes duet, just like Ludacris, only with more melodic refinement: Horner-Kwiatek and White sparred in an oldie from the 1200s called “Dites, seignur,” with Horner-Kwiatek holding the upper hand, not only dramatically but also because the song showed White’s vocal production to be a little strained and pinched on Friday night.
Some songs featured the lyrically indecipherable feat of two artists singing completely different words at the same time; in such cases, one could simply sit back and enjoy the melodies, particularly in “En non Dieu — Quant voi,” where Mondel and Horner-Kwiatek delivered haunting twin laments. Others took momentary, welcome looks at the upbeat side of love, with Bunday delivering a jaunty “Contre dolour” that indeed struck a distinct blow against sadness. And we got a couple fun numbers for the whole ensemble, with a particularly infectious “Chanson de rencontre,” with interpolated passages from an instrumental dance in the same estampie, to close the show.
A few of the songs sounded genuinely weird, like when Whiteside and Resta played accompaniments whose melodies barely intersected with the vocal line; in a song like “Beaute parfaite,” by Antonello da Caserta, this intensified the separation between two lovers described in the lyrics. The generally dislocating feel of such accompaniment also made it an effective intensifier of laments, like in Guillaume Dufay’s “Je me complains piteusement.” (The French language was, helpfully, pretty recognizable to modern readers at this point in history.)
But the sad songs stick out in the memory most, particularly those sung by Horner-Kwiatek. A member of Anonymous 4, which is the early-music group you know if you know only one early-music group, she showed throughout the concert why someone might consider it a coup to bring her in as a guest artist, excelling Mondel and Bunday just a little in purity of tone, clarity of diction, and imaginative phrasing. Her melisma in Dufay’s “Belle, vueilles vostre mercy donner” (“Fair one, please be merciful to me”) coruscated effortlessly, and she navigated the complexity of the melody with such grace that the performance seemed an embodiment of the song’s longing. Her “Onqes n’amai” (“Never did I love”) had a similar century-spanning effect, where the surroundings in St. Mark’s seemed to melt away, leaving only the longing in her voice behind.
Horner-Kwiatek’s performances did a wonderful service to this repertoire; her presence alongside the hometown Armonia Nova confirmed once again that the Washington Early Music Festival reliably provides committed, engaging performances of under-heard music. I can’t believe we have to wait two years now for another festival.
Other People’s Perspectives: Joe Banno.