I first came across this French ensemble when my good friend from Wellington, Richard Taylor, introduced them to me. I had never heard anything like it before. It was like Renaissance Polyphony on steroids! The concept of Falsobordone was so interesting to a first-time listener. It is a style of recitation most often associated with the harmonisation of Gregorian psalm tones. As the piece develops, the performers sing in an increasingly florid and virtuosic nature, improvising on the mostly root position chords. These guys give Beyoncé a run for her money in the melismatic phrases (not that one describes RnB in this manner but you’ll get what I mean if you listen to both artists).
From my experience, singers enjoy singing dissonances. The more dissonant the suspension is, the more enjoyable the resolution is. In the anonymous opening work, Confitemini Domino, from their album Nova Metamorfosi, the dissonances are outrageous and you are constantly thinking to yourself, ‘Are they allowed to do that?’, quickly followed by, ‘I don’t really care if any musicologists out there have raised eyebrows’ because the effect is this thrilling update of music that, for many people, can seem to be inaccessible. As the piece develops, the increasingly florid lines are beautifully performed by the singers and the players.
One of the hallmarks of Le Poème Harmonique is the clarity of their sound and their almost faultless intonation. Using just intonation or pure intonation, which is a form of tuning that many singers use because of how comfortable it makes us feel, we hear beautiful ‘pure thirds’. For me, the joy of listening to this group is the blend of solo singers with all their individuality and freedom to improvise as they see fit, along with the sense of ensemble, which is rarely compromised. At times one gets the impression that we might even get the paired down version as well because it must be so fun to perform Fifteenth Century music so unashamedly. Listen and decide for yourself if this is your thing or not. For me, it’s hours of enjoyment and I hope to hear them live in concert some day. Perhaps you’ll have a similar experience.
Emilio de’ Cavalieri: Lamentations
Monteverdi & Marazolli: Combattimenti!
Photography credit: Guy Vivien
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