Ensemble Mare Nostrum / Marco Beasley

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Classical artists often like to explore various regional 'roots music.' Erik Keilholtz explores the joys and pitfalls of the approach, and then listens to a one man duet.

Ensemble Mare Nostrum, Andrea de Carlo, dir., featuring Nora Tabbush, soprano
Nueva España
Alpha 533 (www.alpha-prod.com)

The Ensemble Mare Nostrum's name refers originally to the Mediterranean Sea (Our Sea, as it would have been seen by the Latin world). However, after Columbus' 1492 voyage the concept expanded to include the whole southern Atlantic Ocean. As the Spanish firmly established their hold on New Spain (ranging from California to Costa Rica), their musical forms melded with indigenous forms and eventually took on totally independent identities. An originally Spanish folkloric dance could became a formal baroque song form in Spain while becoming an almost unrecognizable folkloric form in southern Mexico, sharing the musical DNA with the original and other offshoots, but retaining a regional character that made it distinct.

The Ensemble Mare Nostrum explores the results of this musical version of the Columbian Exchange in their Alpha CD Nueva España. Starting with the son, a form originating in Spain (with other Mediterranean influences) in the sixteenth century, Ensemble Mare Nostrum tackles through-composed New and Old World versions as well as traditional versions, as well the jacara, romanescas, and jarabes. All of the pieces exhibit superb musicianship, and the liner notes are well-written and informative.

While there is plenty of energy and variety among the selections, the overall effect tends towards excessive tameness. The rootsier pieces tend to sound slightly academic: not enough to render them dull or unlistenable, but enough to make them fall firmly into the rarified world of art music (making the record more of a concert hall experience and less of a boozy, grilled-meat fueled fandango experience). The ensemble feels far more at home on the composed pieces from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries than on the traditional sones huastecos, for instance. However, due to the high level of musicianship and the performers' deep understanding of the music, these tracks are still quite lively and enjoyable.

Recorded in a church in Rome, the natural reverberation is quite satisfactory, and the overall sound of the tracks is excellent. The many plucked instruments are crisp and clear, and the voice is in perfect balance with the rest of the ensemble.

As mentioned earlier, the liner notes, given in English and French, are superb. The lyrics to the selections are included in Spanish, French, and English (with one comical typo in which Adonis is supposedly gored by a wild “bore”, a record critic, no doubt). One glaring omission, however, is any history of the ensemble itself. A unit this strong should be given at least a paragraph telling the listener about their origins and musical backgrounds. The packaging, in clean black and white, with a great cover photo of a house in a high desert somewhere, is strong and makes for easy legibility.

Overall this disc is a good listen, entertaining as well as informative. Nueva España, certainly whetted our appetite for more of their music, although we will be seeking out their baroque recordings more than we will be hungering for their take on roots music. - Erik Keilholtz

CD available from cdRoots



Further reading:
Istanpitta: Danses Florentines du Trecento
Marion les Roses

Marco Beasley with Accordone, directed by Guido Morini
Cantate Deo: A voce sola, in dialogo
Alpha 535 (www.alpha-prod.com)

In Cantate Deo tenor Marco Beasley tackles religious music of seventeenth century Italy for two solo voices. The catch is, he uses overdubbing to sing both of those voices, an approach that has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage, of course, is the total unity to stylistic approach and understanding between the two voices. Matching vibrato is not a problem when you are the one who just sang the first part. The problem of different interpretations of the same ornament simply vanishes, bringing a consistency to performance practice, at least between the two voices.

The disadvantage is that it is disconcerting to the listener to hear a voice singing in dialog with itself. When the voices overlap, it is not so much a problem, but when the voices interchange, it becomes a bit like watching an internal dialog sequence in a film. Fortunately the voices are kept in the center of the stereo mix, minimizing this distraction. It is, however, noticeable, even to a casual listener. Worried that I was perhaps being overly sensitive due to multiple listenings, I played the disc for my wife. A little bit into the first track she asked me if it was the same singer on both parts.

If the quality of the performance weren't so high, it would be easy to ascribe this approach to excessive frugality on the part of the label. Why not hire a second singer? The liner notes make reference to mirrors, and the famous optical illusion of two faces/one chalice is used on the CD tray, and the blurb on the back mentions the “perfectly coherent interpretation.” However, there is little more about the decision in the notes.

These perfectly coherent interpretations, ultimately, offer little in the way of a deeper understanding of this music, and they rob the listener of one of the pleasures of the two part motet: a true dialog between the individual voices. The whole reason to have two voices is to attain that diversity within unity that has so long been seen as the hallmark of good composition. Slight variations in interpretation and timbre serve to underscore the strength of the counterpoint, which is the binding agent between all of the elements of the piece.

Fortunately, this shortcoming is not enough to render these recordings unlistenable, for Beasley is an excellent singer who shows an ample understanding of the period. His performances are historically informed, tasteful and quite musical with expertly and intuitively chosen ornamentation. The selections are excellent, particularly Giovanni Felice Sances's haunting “Stabat Mater dolorosa” and Alessandro Grandi's intricate vocal lines in “O beate Hieronime”, on which Beasley exhibits remarkable vocal control and power. His upper range is particularly clear and strong. Claudio Monteverdi's “Salve regina” from the Selva morale e spirituale is also a highlight, during which the unity of Beasley's approach is particularly successful in the “ad te clamamus” section.

Providing more than ample support to Beasley's powerful singing is the instrumental accompaniment of Accordone, an early music quintet led by Guido Morini, who also plays organ and harpsichord. The instrumentalists are given particular room to shine In the three sonatas included on the disc.

As the tracks were all recorded in a church, the natural reverb is deep and pleasant, further helping blend the vocal and instrumentals. However, the middle and lower range are a little high and have a tendency to boom, particularly when heard through headphones. The panning sounds like it was done strictly by microphone placement, creating a natural sound space, making the selections sound the way they were intended to be heard.

Overall, this is an excellent disc, well worth repeated listenings. While the overdubbing of the same voice is a distraction, it is not enough to negate the tremendous musical value of the selections, and there is certainly some benefit to the unity achieved. And the listener cannot help but be astounded by the vocal virtuosity of Mr. Beasley, particularly when he has done twice the work as singers would have in a standard two-vocalist recording. - Erik Keilholtz

CD available from cdRoots


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