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ROLF LISLEVAND ENSEMBLE – DIMINUITO / ECM New Series 2088           player

The expansion and contraction of arranged and improvised elements allows the original Baroque material to breathe authentically in our own time, resulting in a phantasmagoria whose haunting effects are only accentuated by ECM’s beautifully spacious recording. … This disc rocks, albeit urbanely.
William Yeoman, writing on ‘Nouve Musiche’ in The Gramophone

In 2006 Rolf Lislevand released ‘Nuove musiche’ with exciting new interpretations of early 17th-century instrumental pieces, mainly from Italy. Now his new album ‘Diminuito’ goes a few decades further into the past. Recorded in the spacious acoustics of St. Gerold’s Church in the Vorarlberg region of Austria, ‘Diminuito’ is devoted to madrigals, chansons and virtuoso lute music of the Renaissance, offering what might be called the ‘backstory’ to the nuove musiche around 1600, once again from the vantage point of the solo plucked string instrument. As Lislevand puts it, ‘If seconda pratica monody emphasised subjective expression, polyphonic music in the Age of Humanism focused primarily on the powers of human knowledge. Composers tried less to achieve emotional effects than to convey insight into complex harmonic and rhythmic structures.’

This is far removed from arid didacticism. Renaissance instrumental music is surprisingly sensual, spirited and above all playful – a laboratory of mind-boggling virtuosity. Hence the album’s title: diminuito refers to the practice of adding florid embellishments to vocal melodies, ‘shortening’ rhythmic and harmonic units into madcap runs, arpeggios and arabesques. Masters such as the Spanish composer Diego Ortiz used well-known vocal pieces as a basis for their recercadas, often intended for viols. The harmonic skeletons and melodic outlines served as points of departure for elaborate paraphrases known as glosas. In the end the varied original was no longer explicitly stated but only audible subliminally beneath the rich ornamentation. It is this interplay between a tuneful vocal line and its overly ornate, often uninhibited elaboration that lends ‘Diminuito’ its special charm. Lislevand calls it the most conceptually consistent and unified album he has ever made.

‘Contemporary listeners knew the underlying themes so well that they could add them in their imaginations. We, on the other hand, have to familiarise our listeners with the themes afresh. Basically we offer a sort of didactic listening aid: we project the madrigals either completely or partially onto the instrumental pieces based on them. This results in richly textured large-scale forms of almost symphonic proportions in which the structural variety of the material can successively unfold.’ As the original madrigals or chansons could not be found in every case, Lislevand arranged suitable works so that they could be almost imperceptibly overlaid.

‘Actually this approach comes from the history of musical performance: everything we do is laid out directly in the musical text, or can at least be derived from it. That’s why I avoid using the term composition. But a certain amount of creativity was necessary to make two different pieces truly mesh and to create organic transitions between the sections. The production of the material was one of the most exhausting tasks of this sort I’ve ever done. I spent over a month with a computer writing out the parts and polishing the instrumentation.’

À propos instrumentation: as on ‘Nuove Musiche’ the main focus falls on the solo lute, joined mainly by dark-hued instruments. Owing to the close ties between Veneto and the eastern Mediterranean, these instruments were much appreciated at the time by composers such as Vicenzo Capirola or Giovanni Antonio Terzi. A delightful timbral contrast is supplied by the bright sopranos of Linn Andrea Fugleseth and Anna Maria Friman from the Norwegian a cappella group Trio Mediaeval.

‘Many contemporary illustrations reveal that similar ensembles made use of percussion instruments’, Lislevand explains, ‘but the parts, of course, were never written down. There is practically no way of knowing in detail how they were used, whether they merely beat time or had an intrinsic timbral value of their own. We took great pains to derive the rhythms strictly from the musical text. Even seemingly ‘groovy’ passages with a syncopated pulse are actually rooted in irregular subdivisions of the bar, on hemiolas where the accents are offset against the strong beats.’

Lislevand, who was born in Oslo in 1961, knows what he’s talking about. Since 1993 he has been professor of lute and historical performance practice at the Trossingen School of Music. He painstakingly analyses all available sources on the works and their proper performance. Yet he feels that research provides only the basic groundwork for a meaningful performance in which historical techniques are creatively updated. ‘To my way of thinking, reconstructions are fairly boring. Do we really want to pretend that nothing happened in music between 1550 and today? I think that would be intellectually dishonest. And the notion that people did not deal freely with their feelings until today is not only naive but arrogant.’

Rolf Lislevand studied classical guitar at Norway’s State Academy of Music, after which he studied with Hopkinson Smith and Eugène Dubois at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. In the late 1980s he joined Jordi Savall’s groups Hespèrion XX, La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Concert des Nations. He has received many international awards for his solo recordings.

© Studio Svengali, May 2024
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