Listening: ‘Nova Metamorfosi’, Le Poeme Harmonique dir. Vincent Dumestre

by James M. Potter

Nova Metamorfosi, Le Poème Harmonique, dir. Vincent Dumestre (Alpha, 2003)

What would you play to someone if you wanted to show them how music made you feel? Is there one disc that captures what it is about a particular style that enthralls you, that gives you the sort of visceral pleasure that makes you laugh unprompted, or that makes you want to squeal with pleasure? It’s not easy. But for me I think it might be this one.

I can’t remember who first played me the first track on this disc – I think I should credit a former housemate. He played it to me, grinning all the while, and pretty soon I felt my own face rise unbidden to match. On paper it’s pretty esoteric stuff – a recording by a French early music group of Italian repertoire, looking at the weird and wonderful moments at the beginning of the seventeenth century when Monteverdi’s so-called secunda pratica reinvented the way music could be written and performed. But the effect of this recording is more than merely shedding light on a little corner of musical history. One of the reasons it’s a sort of ‘ambassadorial’ record for me is that it demonstrates everything I love about early music: seriousness of purpose married to a sense of exhilarating freedom, profundity and sacrality allied to spontaneity and fun.

It’s the opening few tracks that really do it for me. The disc is themed around what might have been heard in churches in Milan at the time. Some of Monteverdi’s glorious Fourth Book of Madrigals are heard in contrafactum, that is, given a sacred, Latin text to replace the secular, vernacular original – a practice we might now consider rather blasphemous (Tantum Ergo to the tune of Blurred Lines anyone?). These are interspersed with movements of a mass setting by Vincenzo Ruffo. But the opening is an attempted reconstruction of the way the psalms might have been sung in the glorious Milanese basilicas. ‘Confitemini Domino’ (Psalm 118) is sung in falso bordone, a practice comparable to Anglican chant in that the first part of the sentence is chanted in speech rhythm, followed by an extended cadence on the last few words. And these guys extend those cadences. Oh yes.

Looking carefully at the treatises published contemporaneously, Vincent Dumestre and his team have tried to absorb the ways performers could improvise around this basic framework. The musicians employed by these churches had this in their blood. It would have been instinctive for them to add expressive, beautiful ornaments to simple melodies, even after – perhaps to spite – the Vatican’s attempts to suppress such ‘unnecessary’ additions. Thus the simple repeated chord sequence is turned into an exercise in wildly imaginative instrumental and vocal pairings, and some of the most stunningly stylistic ornamental diminutions ever recorded.

(ignore the tagging on Spotify – this setting is anonymous, not by Carissimi.)

Listen to them introduce it, simply and strongly. Listen to that blend – a group of razor-straight-toned voices, expressive, an easy emphasis on the direction of the phrase. And then, on the repeat, they bring in those gorgeous, utterly unprepared dissonances. And it just keeps on getting better from there. The final section, when the choir reaches the ‘Gloria Patri’, proves that they saved the really big guns until the end. Claire Lefilliatre, the soprano of the group, seems to have a preternatural sense for ornamentation, and this moment is a tour de force. Most exciting is…well, I won’t ruin it for you:

It’s on the word ‘Sancto’ (holy) that she lets rip. There were dozens of approved ways of getting from one written note to another, and she must use a fair number of them. Particularly spectacular are the two portamenti she uses, bending up from one pitch to another – a legitimate technique that we never hear used, and all the more startling for it.

The rest of the disc is treated more soberly but no less beautifully. The variety of colour and texture is marvellous, dramatic, and carefully considered. I return to it any time I need reminding of the sheer possibility inherent in performing early music, and the multiplicity of approaches we can adopt. Noone listening to this disc could conclude that the historically-informed performance of early music is dry, stuffy, or irrelevant. Try vibrant, moving – revelatory. It’s available on Alpha, itself a sign that much care has been taken over its recording and presentation.