> Choral and Song
Jordi Savall & Hespèrion XXI: "Erasmus Van Rotterdam: In Praise of Folly"
Various soloists; La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Savall. Alia Vox B009NEP3E2 (6)
Conceived by Jordi Savall and the late Montserrat Figueras, Erasmus van Rotterdam: In Praise of Folly is a towering tribute to the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536). The locus of the recording is Erasmus's In Praise of Folly, joined by passages from the philosopher's other works, his correspondences, and writings of his contemporaries, and woven together with a diverse collection of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century music. The sounds of the Ottoman Empire, Spain, England, Italy, France and Germany, juxtaposed with the recited texts, tell a living history that is operatic in scope yet intimate in storytelling.
In the first disc, excerpts from In Praise of Folly are layered with a treasure of secular songs, dances and folías, extemporary instrumental works named for the traditional harmonic progression over which the musicians Hespèrion XXI improvise. The folías are the true star of the first disc, pulsing beneath and between Folly's impassioned recitations. Hespèrion XXI's signature improvisational style is visceral, spontaneous and utterly addictive, especially in the anonymously penned Folias Portuguesas, in which recklessly delightful syncopations gyrate under Folly's farewell to the reader.
When Savall allows the listener to catch a breath, the effect is astounding. Juan del Encina's raunchy cuckolding song "Cucu, cucu, cucucu!" after Folly's humorous diatribe on marriage; Mateo Flecha's war song "Todos los buenos soldados" preceding Folly's narration on war (declaimed with force by Emily Wallis); and the serenity of Clement Woodcock's "Browning my dear" provide rhythmic and dramatic breaks to what could otherwise become a shapeless sprawl of sound.
The second disc is a chronology of world and personal events told through Erasmus's own voice and a diversity of musical selections. The performance to be prized is the late Montserrat Figueras's haunting rendition of the Sephardic song "Lavava y suspirava," placed after Erasmus's condemnation of Jewish persecution. Figueras sings the serpentine chromatic lines with precision and pathos, each word imbued with intention.
The musical journey leads to the maturity of Erasmus on the third disc.Correspondences between Erasmus, Thomas More and Martin Luther, spanning more than three decades, inhabit a sound world of French pavanes, German organ music, Spanish balads, and motets by Josquin. The singers of La Capella Reial de Catalunya are showcased in the variety of vocal music that enhances the drama of the narrative, most notably with the hymn "Christ lag in Todes," published by Martin Luther in 1533, which underscores the recitation of Luther's response to Erasmus's criticism. The final works on the program, Cristobal de Morales's divine "Pie Jesu Domine" and Benedictus Appenzeller's "Lament on the Death of Erasmus," flank an excerpt from Stefan Zweig's Triumph and Tragedy of Erasmus of Rotterdam, which resurrected an interest in Erasmus when published in 1934.
With six discs (three with music and recited text, three with music alone) and a 600-page booklet of translations and essays in seven languages, it is a tome of unapologetic size, thought-provoking and dramatically engaging. One need not be a Renaissance scholar to enjoy the richness of this recording so expertly crafted by Savall and Figueras.
STEVEN JUDE TIETJEN
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