CD Spotlight

Higher authority

Jacob Heringman plays music from the Siena Lute Book -
reviewed by

'... an infectious zest for the music ...'

The Siena Lute Book. © 2004 Jacob Heringman

'Orpheus with his lute made trees' is not quite so startlingly creative as may seem at first sight; Shakespeare continues 'Bow themselves when he did sing'. But from most ancient times, when lutes cheered the banquets of noble Egyptians beneath the Theban hills, the instrument attained special significance. If a musical god such as Apollo needed something to strum on, as often as not it would be a lute, even if the Greeks confounded matters by using the same word for lute and lyre.

By sixteenth century Siena, the lute was thoroughly established in Italy. Sienese music-making had a firm footing in the resplendent Cathedral and in the Palazzo Pubblico with its guild of trumpeters. In the following century came the horse-racing Palio with its traditional songs; but circa 1590 was compiled the 'Siena Lute Book'. Now relocated at the Hague, the collection is remarkable for accurate copying, the range of music featuring the most skilled lutenist-composers of the time, chanson or motet intabulations, and anonymous contemporary dances.

The composer best represented is Francesco da Milano (1497-1543), with some hundred Fantasias and six Ricercares. The latter can be sampled in a high-spirited example that exploits the instrument with delicious energy and verve [listen -- track 6, 0:00-0:59]. Francesco's contapuntal skill, imaginative and sometimes wayward, is evident at the start of a fine Fantasia that in fact occurs twice in the Siena Book [listen -- track 22, 0:00-1:13].

Francesco had an enviable reputation in his lifetime, so that he was familiar with the papal household and gave lessons to the grandson of Paul III, notable in English history for having excommunicated Henry VIII. He was also in attendance when the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Francis I of France met at Nice in 1538 to resolve differences. In the past Charles had more than once threatened Francis with single combat. On this occasion a concordat was patched up and the French king was sufficiently impressed by Francesco to offer him some sort of employment, so that he was known also as Francesco da Parigi (of Paris).

'Anon' may be less significant historically, but musically he (or she) can run with the fleetest. An enchanting piece has basis in the 'Spagna' dance tune that played cantus firmus in a multitude of polyphonic flights. Jacob Heringman has devised a setting for two lutes, using the surviving treble line and fitting the obligatory 'Spagna' ground as bass for the second lute. Much virtuosity is involved [listen -- track 14, 0:00-1:09]. The same composer is responsible for a frisky Balletto, popular in idiom and designed to stir the most reluctant foot towards the dance [listen -- track 23, 0:00-1:33].

Jacob Heringman has an infectious zest for the music, whether learned or fun. His technical skill guarantees admirable clarity in the midst of complex counterpoints, and there is a delightful sense of well-being about the performances. If the 'Siena Book' was indeed copied in that splendid city, it is a graceful domestic complement to the public music-making of church and state. What influence Heringman may have on the vegetable kingdom I leave to higher authority.

Copyright © 2 January 2005 Robert Anderson, London UK