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GRAMOPHONE (03/2016)
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Berlin Classics

Code-barres / Barcode : 0885470006994


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Reviewer: Edward Breen


What at first glance might seem a little contrived about this programme quickly reveals itself to be a rather brilliant conceit. Christine de Pizan (or Pisane, 1364-c1430) was a remarkable medieval writer – ‘France’s first professional literary woman’, as Natalie Zemon Davis has described her. Her poetry reflects the extraordinary ups and downs of her life while offering commentary on the Hundred Years War, French/Italian culture and, famously, the life of Joan of Arc. Many will know Gilles Binchois’s 1430s setting of her ballade ‘Deuil angoisseux’ (‘Anguished grief’), marking the death of her husband, Etienne Castel, in 1390. But, surprisingly for someone of her stature and circulation, nothing else survives with music. And this is where VocaMe step in, setting her poetry – ballades, rondeaux and virelais – to music she may have known, a technique known as contrafactum. Basically: one song to the tune of another.


The results are fascinating. The four female vocalists of VocaMe and multimedieval-instrumentalist and director Michael Popp have already marked themselves out for innovative programming of works by medieval women, and their clear, bright voices are perfectly balanced by the battery of plucked and bowed strings and Eastern-tinged percussion. They create two main sound worlds on this disc: solo singing with instrumental accompaniment and a cappella performance. These are cleverly juxtaposed in the first track, Jeux à vendre, where a vendor offers various objects to a customer who reflects on the flirtatious undertones of their bargaining. Despite reflecting the inner thoughts of the customer in Jeux à vendre, this a cappella sound feels rather synthetic, perhaps too closely recorded or acoustically enhanced. I prefer a more naturalistic production.


The composers whizzing past on the carousel of VocaMe’s imagination range through Bernart de Ventadorn, Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois. Frustratingly, VocaMe don’t specify the origin for their contrafacta, leaving the listeners to puzzle it out for themselves. Binchois’s Deuil angoisseux is performed in an intimate lute-song style. Compared with Gothic Voices’ recording (Hyperion, 11/86), it gains a more modern sense of melancholy but downplays the extraordinary blazes of F major sustained in vocal performance. The contenance angloise is thus sublimated.


Elsewhere, Popp provides stunning troubadour accompaniment, perhaps channelling Thomas Binkley and his famous Arabicised accompaniments for Mon chevalier, mon gracieux servant. Whichever approach VocaMe take, Christine de Pizan remains out front, her words scorching through the splendid medieval textures.


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