Among the many things the ‘Early Music movement’ has achieved is reminding both listeners and musicians of the improvisatory roots of Western classical music. The composers represented in this collection cover a significant period of music history between the middle of the sixteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth centuries. It was during this time that some ideas in music we now take for granted first emerged, such as soloistic instrumental music and forms like the sonata, opera—consciously invented by some intellectuals in Florence who had the idea of combining story with music—and the system of harmony that would make the music of Bach, Mozart and Debussy possible. But for all of these innovations, the skill most highly prized at the time by musicians and audiences alike was still the art of improvisation. This first CD release, from the Australian-New Zealand trio Latitude 37, demonstrates their adeptness as improvisers, ably assisted by a few equally talented guest artists.
The deft inventiveness of Julia Fredersdorff’s violin playing is well matched with Laura Vaughan’s subtle yet full-bodied viola de gamba and this is best exhibited in one of the stand-out tracks, the improvisation on a ubiquitous tune, here titled la Monica; there are many pleasing duet moments between these two players, with added ambiance due to Guy du Blêt’s sensitive percussion. Some may recognise this tune as it is also heard in the film Tous les Matins du Monde. Another tune many will be familiar with is Amarilli mia bella, sung here by young Victorian soprano, Siobhán Stagg. Her performance is sparse and unaffected, surprisingly so to begin with, until the free-styling improvisations begin, giving us a fresh perspective on this eternal tune. A stand-out track for me would have to be the closing item, a passacaglia from Kapsberger: Simon Martyn-Ellis’ theorbo playing is simply electrifying. The lively and percussive contributions of Donald Nicolson’s harpsichord and Martyn-Ellis’s baroque guitar in Caccini’s La spagnolettaalso deserve a special mention.
This is a well-chosen and engaging collection of pieces, played with real understanding and musicality, from an exciting new group. But what makes a disc like this so remarkable is not just what the music represents, but that so much of the music as we hear it was never written down. The modern performer-scholar cannot just read notes from the page; the music which has come down to us is only a skeleton: the melody and some bass notes. No tempi, no dynamics, no expression marks, sometimes no metre and very little indication of harmony. The fact that the music we hear in such recordings as this one is inevitably a speculative reconstruction raises the question for some listeners whether there can ever be an “authentic” realisation of the original. For what it’s worth, for me, the more important question to ask is: does the music I am listening to represent authentic communication from one person to another? And in this instance the answer is most definitely yes. I am eagerly looking forward to their next release!