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31 May 2006
Delectatio angeli — Music of love, longing & lament
Catherine Bott is an English soprano in her fifties with decades of career and an extensive discography, but even in the world of early music, where she has spent most of her time, one could not say she is a marquee name.
Among her many recordings there are only a few where she is the headliner, rather than a soloist among other musicians in ensemble. All the more surprising, then, that Hyperion has launched a sort of "early music top of the pops", where she surveys a variety of late-medieval repertoire, among which the most well-known are three songs of Dufay.
If it should be surprising, more's the pity, for this is one of the most consistent enjoyable and diverting discs that has come my way for a while. It begins with an unaccompanied English song from the 13th century, for which Bott adopts a breathy sound popular with "new-age" Celtic pop singers. Is it appropriate here? For me it connotes an ersatz and superficial look back at the past, which is not the message that I imagine Bott wants to send.
The soprano goes on to show what she is capable of in a beautifully spun-out "O Rosa Bella", lyrical, controlled, and passionate, which shows the listener why this was one of the most popular songs of the mid-fifteenth century. Here, and throughout most of the disc, she is accompanied ably by Pavlo Besnosiuk and Mark Levy on medieval fiddles, whether in notated polyphony or in improvised settings for monophonic originals.
My taste lies particularly toward the two works from the French Ars Subtilior, "Par maintes foy" by Vaillant, with its virtuoso coloratura in shifting rhythms delivered with verve and accuracy, and the dreamy "Le Greygnour bien" by Matheus de Perusio. This period of utmost complexity from the late fourteenth was followed by increasing simplification of rhythm and construction through the two centuries to follow, and Bott's readings give an idea of what was lost in moving in another direction. (If I am not mistaken, the listener can find thes e tunes sung by Bott on a Linn disc by the New London Consort which is devoted exclusively to this period). Bott is also heard to good advantage in three Dufay songs, including the warhorse Vergene Bella.
Bott is one of those singers who seems most at home in early music or in contemporary music (an area she has also been exploring), perhaps because her sound and intelligence is more appropriate for intimate, complex, and inward repertoire such as she presents here (rather than the big "bow-wow" that is often the ticket to success in the vocal world). Not so long ago she recorded an entire disc of troubadour song, which is now out-of-print. If you value a first-rate reading of some delightful repertoire, snap this one up while you still can.