SF Classical Voice: “Illuminating the Chanson”

By MICHELLE DULAK THOMSON

One of the pleasures of working in the field of early music – really early music, that is, music from well outside the ordinary classical musician’s realm of experience – must be the sense of having found a corner of the repertoire and built a relationship to it, minutely and intimately and genuinely from scratch. Dedicate yourself to knowing and loving Bach or Haydn or Brahms, and you are to some extent only taking a great common love a little farther than most, building on an appreciation that comes easily to many.

Asteria

Getting on the same intimate terms with, say, Ciconia or Dunstable or Ockeghem is another matter, and a much trickier one. But do it well – come to feel as much at home in the 14th or 15th century as most of SFCV’s readership likely is in the 18th or 19th – and you come to be the medium through which the rest of us can approach music we’d otherwise neither encounter nor understand.

So although Asteria, which opened Seventh Avenue Performances’ 2008 season with a recital Saturday night, has by conventional standards a quite narrow repertory, the atmosphere of its compact gem of a concert was anything but straitened. The duo – soprano Sylvia Rhyne and tenor and lutenist Eric Redlinger – drew the entire program from the Burgundian chanson repertoire dating roughly between 1420 and 1470.

The same little cache of music seems to be Asteria’s sole province, judging by the contents of its two published CDs (which between them cover virtually all the music heard Saturday) and its concert programs (listen online). But, graced with singing and playing as loving and understanding as this, theirs seemed not a cramped musical corner but generously spacious, too full of delights for such a short visit to encompass.

How to go about performing this cc is even now an open question, at least in the sense that no one solution has gained overwhelming sway. If you have a piece in three or four contrapuntal parts, not all of which necessarily have the text fitted to them, where (if anywhere) do you use instruments, where voices? Asteria, with two voices and a lute at its disposal, generally gives the cantus and tenor lines – the two strands that form the contrapuntal framework for the others – to the voices, and everything left over to the lute.

It’s an arrangement that does make the counterpoint harder to hear. Partly because the played lines aren’t sustained, partly because the timbres call up memories of (centuries-later) lute-accompanied song, the ear tends to perceive the plucked parts as harmonic “accompaniment” rather than melodic lines in their own right. Rhyne’s voice, too, is somewhat more penetrating and her singing more emotionally demonstrative than Redlinger’s. I caught myself wondering once or twice whether some of the performances’ extraordinary appeal couldn’t be chalked up to the way they quietly assimilated the unfamiliar 15th-century idiom to more comfortable ideas of melody and harmony, tune and accompaniment.

A Range of Emotional Communication

For the appeal was extraordinary. Asteria’s performances had an uncanny quality of emotional immediacy and intimacy, a tone difficult to catch. Part of it was the plangent gentleness of the singing and playing. Part was theatrics, so subtly managed as to seem the reverse of theatrical. Rhyne and Redlinger varied their positions from number to number. Sometimes she sat and he played and sang as to her; sometimes they stood close side by side, her hand on his waist, singing as though to each other.

Like the touches of “earlie musicke” stage-setting – the candlelight, Rhyne’s floor-length burgundy velvet gown and heavy necklace, the copy of the Chansonnier Cordiforme that she picked up as though to read or sing from occasionally – the changes of posture sketched a context for the music without bludgeoning us with it.

On a technical level the performances were near-flawless. Rhyne did have a slight tendency to drift sharp. It showed up most often when she was left relatively to herself, as in the two chansons where the duo sang a cappella, or in Binchois’ Deuil angoisseux (Anguished grief), which she sang by herself to the lute. Otherwise both the suave singing and Redliger’s deft, delicate lute playing were delightful considered as sounds, and many times more so as they wrapped themselves around these disarmingly graceful but intricate little songs.

Greater depths were plumbed, too. The audience was given only “synopses” of the texts (translations of the opening lines, generally), which was a shame in music so subtly wrought from poetry, but for one chanson Rhyne went into some detail about the poem and its author. This was the aforementioned Dueil angoisseux, to words of Christine de Pisan, a woman widowed early in motherhood who wrote professionally to support herself after her husband’s death.

Into Binchois’ setting of her maddened lament Rhyne poured palpable, heartbreaking anguish. Once, midphrase, she broke off suddenly, to stunned silence from the audience, only to begin again, falteringly and faintly, with the uncertain accompaniment of Redlinger’s lute. (A video is available of an Asteria performance of Dueil angoisseux here; it is a more contained performance than Saturday’s, but still gives some idea of the spell it wove.)

Inside an Ancient Landscape

For the rest, the recurring marvel for me was the easy fluency of the performances, a fluency that never strayed into flippancy. Rhyne and Redlinger seemed entirely comfortable in the music, inhabiting a style rather than straining to portray one. (They effortlessly passed my personal acid test for early-music “stylishness” – “Can these people ornament a line without sounding like they’re working at it?”) How close to the performance-practice state of the art their manner comes I don’t know, but anyone who can convey the inside of a musical world so unfamiliar and yet so lovely as theirs is doing something right.

The one encore was Claudin de Sermisy’s Languir me fais. Right out of the period, that one, as Redlinger explained (it dates from the 1520s, some 50 years after anything in the printed program), but utterly exquisite. If Asteria should ever tire of the 15th century, it knows where to go next.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.

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