Top Italian group La Fonte Musica (‘The Roots of Music’) at Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) on Saturday 26 October at St George’s Kemp Town (7.30pm).
Sopranos Alena Dantcheva, Francesca Cassinari; tenor Guianluca Ferrarini; medieval fiddlers Susanne Anson (upper), Toedoro Bau (lower); lute Michele Pasotti (director). Metamorphosis Trecento (‘Three Hundred Metamorphosis’) – 14th Century repertoire songs and instrumentals by Italian composers from Tuscany, Pescara, Naples, Rome, Bologna, and by three French.
How do the Italians do this early music thing? “Come questo” – ‘like this’. On their UK debut, La Fonte Musica brought a show of music to Brighton Early Music Festival with simultaneously projected medieval illustrations to get British eyes and ears opening.
Director and founder Michele Pasotti with his critically-hailed ensemble is recognised as a contemporary new penetrative energy in early music performance practice. Susanne Anson is German and Alena Dantcheva is Bulgarian but both are Italy-based alongside their Italian fellow band members. And in that company it was Dantcheva who pinched the stage dress plaudits in a dark, flaring neckline top and oriental tapering-down trousers combination.
The subject was Ovid’s Metamorphoses of Greek myths as re-cast within the purpose of pre-renaissance Ars Nova repertoire concerning medieval courtly love, its graces, delights and agonies. Familiar tales of figures including Narcissus, Ulysses, Apollo, Daphne, Cupid and Medusa play re-cast roles of influence and symbolism as secular lyrics and music harnessed by Italian and French composers cast their own metamorphic magic.
Art born, Pasotti reminded me afterwards, during a scarred and recouperating era reinvigorated by the relief of being alive and kicking after the Black Death, which had killed half of Europe. This in music that on a mercilessly wet early evening that from its first bars showed itself lively, rhythmically vigorous, inventively expressive and with a pervasive and multi-coloured vitality.
The instruments had no aiding percussion nor energising strumming chords, so it was the voices which created that vigour, in combination with the lute in a key role. It is often doubling the tenor line beneath the female voices, or playing harmonic counterpoint, or co-generating the rhythm of the lower fiddle.
Here we were hearing medieval music attaining contrapuntal dimension, although it’s a quality, Pasotti pointed out to me, against came which came counter-reaction and simplification in the Renaissance period that followed.
The pictorial illustrations, many faded and hazy with age but fascinating, importantly lifted the performance beyond its acoustical presence. Only the two sopranos were on stage and often placed wider to open the view to the projected images.
The tall tenor and three instrumentalists were in front, on the floor, with Pasotti sideways on, directing and playing almost continuously, sometimes a fingered right hand, sometimes with a plectrum, but using a guitar strap, enabling him to stand. Here was a troubadourial liberation of the lute from the customary in-concert fate of its player being chained to a chair. The lower fiddle, tuned a fifth below the upper, was played sitting, gripped by the knees as is its descendant viola de gamba.
There were sparing instrumental and vocal effects, humour tellingly placed (such as in the departing serpentine hiss of Phyton) and non-employed members would sometimes leave their performing area, even during a piece, to focus the audience attention on those in action. Later, tenor, lutenist and soprano Cassinari moved upstairs to the church gallery to explore the different acoustical spaces of St George’s – a practice in Italy famously not foreign, of course, to St Mark’s Venice in Renaissance times.
The voices sounded as an individual mix in direct opposition to the homogeneity of a choir, this accentuating and personalising the joy or plight of the singer in his song. The six-way contrapuntal element grew in strength and culminated when Francesco Landini de Forenze closed the programme with an outrageously ironical tongue-in-cheek song about a rooster and the satyr Marsyas out-doing and ridiculing Orpheus and Phoebus in their lyre, flute and vocal enchantments.
The audience got the joke – and got an encore. For that, La Fonte Musica switched into the sacred to crown the musical intensity, not in religious terms but in form.
Their arrangement of Matteo de Perugia’s Hymn to The Particle (to the body of Christ as consumed in holy communion) has hymning sopranos laid above a slower Gregorian-style Agnus Dei in the tenor and lute. As Gianluca Ferrarini strolled around the auditorium floor perimeter, the music repeating its sequence twice, he and Pasotti first doubled then quadrupled the speed of their part.
A late Medieval ‘tours de force’. Or whatever the equivalent is in Italian.
Metamorphosis is the 2019 BREMF theme, ‘Transformation and wonder through 700 years of music’. Kate Benjamin’s butterfly logo is a yet more wondrous annual creation of hers, deserving to be fabled. Festival details at bremf.org.uk
La Fonte Musica’s 2017 CD ‘Metamorfosi Trecento’ has garnered such various wow-factor acclaim to be among Diapason magazine’s ‘100 records all music lovers need to know’. See lafontemusica.com