New York Times

Music Review | Lionheart

Richard Termine for the New York Times

Medieval in both the Sound and the Setting


The early-music vocal sextet Lionheart has always known how to transform the sober work of researching antique texts into vibrant, rich-hued programs. And its audience has come to trust its scholarly fascinations. In the acoustically resonant Medieval Sculpture Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Tuesday evening, the group offered a sidelong, subtly shifting view of the Christmas repertory of 13th- through 16th-century Italy.

Lionheart drew its material from collections of laude � songs of lavish praise for Jesus and Mary � both straightforwardly and through ecstatic metaphor. The earliest extant collection of these pieces, �Il Laudario di Cortona,� was compiled between 1250 and 1300. Its settings are homophonic; the music is a single, unharmonized line. And though Lionheart�s program took its title from this manuscript, the Cortona pieces were actually scattered through the program, alongside homophonic pieces from a Florentine manuscript, and polyphonic laude found in 14th- and 15th-century manuscripts from Florence, Bologna, Trier and Venice.

All those works are anonymous, but the program also included works by Innocentius Dammonis, a monk who flourished in Venice around 1500, and is unknown but for 66 laude published in 1508. The Dammonis pieces were often the highlights of each group of laude, and when Lionheart sang a polyphonic Florentine setting of �O Jesu Dolce� beside a Dammonis rendering of the same text, the Dammonis version was far richer in color and texture.

Still, there were highlights among the anonymous works as well. �Ave Mater, O Maria,� from a Bologna manuscript, offered its praise in inventive early counterpoint, sometimes in harmonies that sound rough hewn today, but often with a sense of velvety serenity. And several works, including �O Maria, d�Omelia� and �Gaude, Flore Virginali,� from the Cortona collection, were performed as solo pieces, with the rest of the ensemble joining robustly on the refrains.

Elements of these performances were conjectural. The notation in the Cortona and early Florence manuscripts give the pitches, but not the rhythms. Lionheart proposed a natural, speechlike cadence that ensures the melody�s responsiveness to the text.

The magic of Lionheart�s programming is that the group can legitimately point to its musicological bona fides, yet instead of offering a chronological overview of its sources, which might have seemed dry, the singers moved comfortably back and forth among the centuries, arranging the works by topic: �Virgin and Child,� �The Angel�s Message� and �Adoration of the Magi,� among them.

The group�s performance was at its usual high standard, with unity paramount, and a level of polish that brought out both the reflective and passionate currents in these sacred pieces.

Lionheart is represented exclusively by Bernstein Artists and records for Koch International.

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