John Potter: Secret History
ECM New Series ECM2119
It’s been a while since the names of John Potter and ECM have been linked in an ‘early music’ recording, the last being back in Potter’s Hilliard Ensemble days. This recording was made in 2011, and was the first time this group of musicians had got together. It pre-dates their later recording Amores Pasados published in 2015. The result is a radical re-think of Renaissance music performance, not least in reducing complex polyphony to just one or two vocal lines, sung by John Potter and Anna Maria Friman, the remaining voices being played on vihuelas (an early form of guitar, tuned like a lute) by Ariel Abramovich, Jacob Haringman, and Lee Santana. In the opening eight-part Mouton Nesciens mater for example, they sing the two paired superius lines, in the form of a canon at the fifth, very occasionally switching to one of the other six voices. The three vihuelas play the remaining pairs of voices, which are all also in the same strict canonic form. An extraordinary feat of contrapuntal writing, reduced to comparative simplicity.
The first part of the recording has the complete five-part Victoria Missa ‘Surge Propera’ with what I assume are short improvised vihuela Preludes interspersed between them. The rest of the recording focusses on Josquin Desprez, with a series of chants followed by instrumental versions of the same chant, concluding with the Nymphes de Bois and O magnum mysterium, the latter played on two vihuelas.
The singing from John Potter and Anna Maria Friman is outstanding, their clear, vibrato-free voices being ideal vehicles for exploring the complex vocal and contrapuntal music of the Renaissance. The accompaniments are similarly sensitive to the mood of the music. There is much of musicological and performance history interest here, but it is also a wonderfully reflective and evocative recording to just listen to. The musicians collectively now call themselves Alternative History.