alta danza: 15th century dance music in Italy

les haulz et les bas
79:24
Christophorus CHE 0213-2 (c 1998)

If the sound of shawms, sackbut and bombard floats your boat, then this CD is certainly for you. You will seldom hear these loud outdoor instruments more expertly played and at the same time with enormous flamboyance and yet with pinpoint intonation and balance. Having dabbled with shawm and bombard, I know just how hard it is to play extended dance pieces such as we have here and maintain pitch and unanimity. The brilliant thing about this ensemble is that, should you tire of the ‘alta’ consort, there is a quiet ‘bassa’ ensemble of fiddle, lute and tambourine to provide textural variety. Most of the music here, taken from dance treatises, seems to be by one or other of two 15th-century Italian composers, Domenico da Piacenza and Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro and it is presented in forms which would allow it to be danced to. This has involved arranging the music fairly heavily both as regards repeats, but also harmonizing music which survives only as melodies. Véronique Daniels, the group’s dance adviser, makes a cogent case in the notes for adapting the original melodies for mainly four-part ensemble, although this begs the question if the original owners of the treatises would simply have improvised the part music. It seems to me unlikely that they would have come up with such felicitous arrangements as we find here, but that is all to the good. It is lovely to hear this music in extended performances which would have permitted the often complex dances they were written for to be executed, and we have to assume that the advice of a specific dance expert will have ensured realistic tempi. This is a lovely CD, which cleverly and inventively sidesteps the two potential pitfalls that await projects of this sort – the danger of boredom from monochrome textures or very obvious harmonisations, and the stultifying effect of lots of tiny short dance episodes. And, as a bonus, we have some very funky bagpiping from the group’s director, Ian Harrison, and Gesine Bänfer!

D. James Ross