Pilgrimage to Montserrat

The Renaissance Players, directed by Winsome Evans
Classical, Early Music
Tall Poppies TP 229 2CDs
Reviewed by , November 1st, 2014

Recording and performing for nearly fifty years, The Renaissance Players, conceived and led by the indefatigable Winsome Evans, has always combined research with scholarly-informed interpretation and a cheeky sense of fun in the creation of music with vigour and excitement. Indeed, every Renaissance Players performance is an event with a variable troupe of musicians, mimes, poetry readings, costumes, and an amazingly rich palette of instrumental and vocal sounds.

Many student musicians have passed through the ranks of the ensemble based at Sydney University, with many going on to professional careers making their name as performers in early music, non-Western music, popular music, classical music, and in academia. Included in the ensemble for this recording are ex-students of decades past — Belinda Montgomery and Tony Lewis.

Renaissance Players, Sydney

Renaissance Players, Sydney

The songs of this double CD set are built around a collection of ten pilgrim songs contained in the fourteenth century manuscript known as the Llibre Vermell. The songs are representative of those that were sung by pilgrims making their way from all over Europe up the treacherous mountain path to the Monastery of the Blessed Virgin at Montserrat in Catalonia. These are supplemented by a number of complementary pieces imagined as sacred circle dances deriving from many cultures. The collection has the energy and exhilaration of an international medieval rave party! With anthem-like simple structures, and catchy rhythms, many of the songs are ‘earworms’. A standout is ‘Stella Splendens’ which opens the second CD — nine minutes of pure fun. The only blemish in the recording is an imbalance of some of the voices, both in singing style and volume.

A recurring theme through the collection is circular motion, in the structure of the pieces, in the use of round-like vocal phrases, and over the structure of the two CDs. The collection is bookended by pieces written in memoriam of the filmmaker Robin Anderson, co-director of the documentary film Face the Music which dealt with the closing down of the Music Department on the main campus of Sydney University. Anderson died soon after the critically successful launch of the documentary. While the pieces beginning and ending the CD are therefore quiet and reflective, most of the pieces are ecstatic celebrations of life.

Recordings for the CD were made in 2002 at Megaphon Studios with Guy Dickerson, but this CD, the first for the Renaissance Players on Tall Poppies, was released only this year. The sound is spacious, yet detailed.

Over almost half century, Winsome Evans has shaped The Renaissance Players as an exemplar for early music interpretation. This collection proves that audacious interpretations of this ancient music allow it to excite and engage us today.

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