The music on this album documents the popular formes fixes of ballade, rondeau, virelai, and bergerette at the mid 15th-century Franco-Flemish courts, and more specifically those of Burgundy. Courtly love is the general subject, spun out as joy in a lady’s favor, pride in her qualities, despondency at her cruelty, and pleas (many, many pleas) against her heartlessness. The source in nearly every case here is a single manuscript, housed as Canonici Miscellaneous 213 at Bodleian Library in Oxford. Much of its content is anonymous, with both Dufay (39 songs) and Binchois featured as well. Transcriptions have been published and in regular circulation since the late 19th century.
Listeners familiar with the repertoire will know what to expect: cantus-tenor duets dominated by the cantus, enlivened in many selections with a contratenor part, occasionally employing extensive imitation—as in Dufay’s Ce Jour del lan voudray joye mener , probably an early piece of his written in Italy. Thematic lines are long, mixing melismatic and syllabic scans. The music is written for only one stanza; and while recent research suggests there was no embellishment or variety employed in successive verses, as in most music before relatively recent times it’s probably a good thing not to make any hard and fast rules. Asteria in any case decides to repeat the musical content throughout each piece without changes or instrumental breaks.
Was the music originally played with a lute furnishing one of the parts, or just voices? Certainly there’s literary evidence of singers and instruments from Burgundy at that time playing together, as in a contemporary memoir’s recall of music performed “by a lute with two good voices” at Philip the Good’s extravagant Feast of the Pheasant in 1454. (Duke Philip, by the way, had 24 known mistresses. If he was truly good, presumably it was because of practice.) But we don’t know if the songs they sang were polyphonic, or a matter of doubling the singer’s melody, a folk tradition that has remained active and documented to this day. Musicologist Gilbert Reaney, on the other hand, suggested that the textual incipits in the lower parts of surviving polyphonic manuscripts might have served as vocal cues. Asteria takes the polyphonic instrumental option. It helps to vary the textures of their ensemble, composed of a soprano, tenor, and lute.
As for the duo, this is its third album. Eric Redlinger did graduate work at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, then developed an interest in computer content management and network design. Classically trained Sylvia Rhyne landed several plum roles in Broadway musical touring companies, and one of the leads, Penelope, in an off-Broadway production of The Golden Apple , among the greatest American operas ever written. They first appeared together in 2004, winning Early Music America’s Unicorn Prize for Medieval and Renaissance Music. Redlinger’s tenor is pleasant, his lute playing fluent and accurate, with none of the affectations a few performers have adopted in this repertoire. (He has a pair of lute solos on the album.) The focus throughout this disc and their previous releases, however, is on Rhyne’s sweet lyric soprano. It is well produced, without evident breathiness, though the high-lying tessitura of Puisque je n’ay plus de maystresse finds just a hint of flutter. The enunciation of both singers is immaculate, and for lack of any authoritative background on the matter, they employ standard vibratos. They’re closely miked, in a resonant aural environment that never obscures the respective musical lines. How they sound live, without microphones, is something I can’t discuss, as I’ve never seen them; but on records, at least, they lack nothing for breath support and ease in dealing with the sinuous lines of this music.
You can sample (and optionally purchase) the album on Asteria’s own Web site, asteriamusica.com. Their previous two releases are there as well: Le Souvenir de Vous me Tue (0404) and Soyes loyal (0406). Recommended? Without question.