Recording of August 2008: Romaria

The Dowland Project: John Potter, tenor; John Surman, tenor & bass recorder. soprano saxophone, bass clarinet; Milos Valent, violin, viola; John Stubbs, baroque guitar, vihuela
ECM New Series 1970 (CD). 2008. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Markus Heiland, eng. DDD. TT: 77:00
Performance ***½
Sonics ****

Depending on how you date it, the "authentic instrument" movement is at least 30 years old. Throughout its history, there has been a certain amount of understandable backlash; from performers who insist on the evolved superiority of modern instruments, and from free spirits who prefer to employ diverse folk and world-music arrangements. The results range from John Renbourn's playing of William Byrd on electric guitar to period-informed performance by 21st-century chamber ensembles.

One thing is without question: early-music performers have gotten a lot better technically. The age of squeaky strings and unnatural trumpets is well and truly over. Those of us who write about period performances no longer feel obliged to gloss over such details. Authentic performers can now (within reason) match the accurate intonation of more "sophisticated" instruments. The result of this is to allow an increasing amount of "mixed" performances to flourish, of which Romaria is one of the best performed and most interesting.

Again, ensembles of this kind are by no means a recent development. In the folk/pop genre, the Albion Country Band, the Incredible String Band, and numerous others were combining the sounds of medieval hurdy-gurdy and shawm with 20th-century guitar, bass, and keyboards in the 1960s. The present disc, by the Dowland Project (their first recording was a disc of songs by John Dowland), is perhaps a more "serious" effort to combine authentic performance values with modern instruments and sensibilities.

The group employs mostly period instruments and practices with a few distinctly modern touches. Works run from early-medieval chant to Renaissance polyphony. Bass clarinet and soprano saxophone fill in nicely for medieval reeds, and the arrangements take on a sometimes jazzy texture, but no violence is done to the originals. The vocal line remains dominant, as would have been true in the Middle Ages, but instruments such as the soprano sax sometimes provide harmonies—even in Gregorian plainchant.

All this is grounded by the extraordinary voice of tenor John Potter. His is a flexible instrument, capable of beautiful tone production and marvelous phrasing. Instrumental lines are permitted a good bit of jazz-inflected liberty, but Potter remains true to the originals. He often uses tempos that could be considered slow in order to allow the voice to predominate, abetted by the recording's beautiful sense of space and depth. On the anonymous Veris dulcis (from the oft-performed Carmina burana manuscript discovered at the Benediktbeuren abbey), a bass clarinet provides the foundation over which Potter can build the melodic structure, giving weight to each note. This "profane" song takes on an emotional context that almost removes it to the realm of oral gesture. Which is another way of saying that it is profoundly beautiful and moving.

The group takes an extremely melismatic approach to the 12th-century Ora pro nobis, paying tribute to original practice (as we understand it) without trying to follow some assumed set of rules. The soprano sax is used to good effect here, mimicking and amplifying the tenor line. The traditional Iberian Lá lume is given a similarly free interpretation, once again over the low sonorities of the bass clarinet. On Dulce solum (also from the Carmina burana ms.) I hear echoes of Paul Hillier at his best, which is a high compliment to the Dowland group. Loveliest of all, in my opinion, is the Sanctus: Tu solus qui facis of Josquin, on which Potter rises to extraordinary expressive heights.

The two modern pieces run into the terrible dilemma of pastiche: Hew too closely to the original inspiration and you are simply derivative; stray too far and you lose your way. The first path is easier, the second perhaps more rewarding. While I feel that Ein iberisch Postambel may go too far in the latter direction, it is an interesting effort, and perhaps a better one than my period-music snobbery will allow.

Realize that the following comments come from a fairly specialized point of view. Most people—even serious classical listeners—will not have heard this music often, if at all. I, however, probably have half a dozen Carmina Burana recordings (if you include Orff). It is all the more remarkable, then, that this disc succeeds in making the music new to my ears. Yes, performances of this kind are often met with charges of gimmickry, especially by those who have not heard them. I think anyone hearing Romaria—in luminous and illuminating sound—with an open mind will be charmed, stimulated, and finally moved.—Les Berkley