Imagine the Platonic Ideal of a performance of songs about Love—Love incarnated as a poetic idealization. You might conceive of vocal lines sinuously interwoven with the kind of insouciance born only from total contrapuntal command. You might imagine performers able to match pitch and timbre to achieve the two-becoming-one and one-blossoming-into-two effects with seeming effortlessness, and you might fantasize that, when short phrases were exclaimed together, the singers would be in such sympathy that breath and enunciation, attack and release were utterly simultaneous, a poet singing in stereo.
Last night, one of the culminating events at Early Music Colorado’s Fall Festival took place: at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Boulder, there was a performance by Asteria, an early music duo specializing in late medieval Burgundian chansons: Du Fay, Binchois, Robert Morton, a few less familiar names, plus other anonymous but gloriously refined works. The time period was, roughly, the third quarter of the fifteenth century and the context was the wealthy and artistically inclined courts of the Dukes of Burgundy (Phillip the Good and Charles the Bold). These chansons all have to do with Love, in the prevailing conception of amour courtois, Courtly Love: the despair of love lost, the exquisite pain of love found, the miseries of gossip and insecurity, the poison of suspicion, the exaltation (or thrill of the chase!) of a love affair in full bloom, and so on. The artistic culture of the Burgundian court centered, at last as far as the secular poetic and musical realms, on love above all else; the repertoire seems to be primarily three-part, delectably elegant music featuring graceful counterpoint, musically realized dialogue, and sweetly expressive lines realizing the middle French poetry.
Asteria consists of a married couple: Sylvia Rhyne, soprano, and Eric Redlinger, tenor and Lute. Their performance was surpassingly intimate, from a musical perspective: timbral matching, interwoven lines, and miraculously unisono declamation, when homorhythmic lines called for it. They also incorporated a certain tastefully theatrical realization to the performance: close physical proximity, gazing into each other’s faces, turning sorrowfully away when the text called for it, singing both to and (seemingly) about each other, and so on. The concert felt like an ideal courtly performance: performance artistry of the most sensitive and refined kind, conceived for an appropriately sensitive and knowledgeable audience who could appreciate what they were hearing. So we heard a selection of all-but-unknown repertoire, interpreted with superb musicianship but always proceeding outward from the poetry. For the encore, Rhyne and Redlinger stepped well outside this repertoire: all the way to the 1530s, for a song by Claudin de Sermisy. This, too, was stunning.
This is a stellar sort of music making that transforms this repertoire—usually limited to doctoral-exam fodder—to something glistening and vivid. I find myself wishing that interpretations of this quality (and all Asteria’s live-performance intimacy survives, miraculously enough, on their recordings) could be required listening in undergraduate music history classes. What the Burgundian art was about and from whom it was produced seem so clear and natural, upon the hearing of it, that the explanation can wait: it bewitches and compels without the necessity of the usual here’s-why-you-should-know-it justifications. Asteria’s level of musicianship is stellar, the conception of this music profoundly informed, and the presentation an unmitigated joy. Their music is available on magnatune.com, and the CDs readily available by order.
Really. You DO deserve pleasure this intense.