- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2002

Medieval music is the simplest and purest music of all. Its intonations have a timeless quality, as if they existed before they were written down.
The music seems all the more eternal because the men and women who wrote it were nameless, composing melodies of haunting beauty, penning messages for souls through the ages, yet without the warp of ego or diversion of individuality that came to dominate music later in the Western world.
Medieval musicians toiled for higher causes than themselves and found fulfillment in being united with something larger than self.
Perhaps it is the anonymity and transcendence of medieval music that resonates with modern audiences. Today's mediums of expression whether the Internet or television can be equally anonymous.
Families sitting in the shelter of their living rooms silently share Earth-spanning experiences with nearly 5 billion other souls whether viewing the Olympics or the events of September 11. The ease and security of anonymity enables many a Web surfer to bare his soul in chat rooms and post his stabs at poetry and prose on anonymous bulletin boards.
Whatever the connection that draws 21st-century souls to peer back into the bare beginnings of Western music, it is the Folger Consort that offers Washingtonians the opportunity to explore this link to the fullest.
The consort launched its silver-anniversary Musical Landscape series in October with the goal of offering listeners a taste of medieval and Renaissance music as it was conceived in various regions of Europe.
The series already has visited the music of France and Italy and will travel to Germany, Venice and Scotland by April.
This past Friday and Saturday, the series arrived in Eastern Europe and, to make the experience more genuine, enlisted the considerable talents of Poland's Il Canto, an ensemble of six singers who have perfected the presentation of early music in all its simplicity, purity and solemnity.
Il Canto was a pleasure to hear. Its members' voices are as unaffected as the medieval music they sing, often without accompaniment. The group achieves a unity of sound so convincing that it seems to be a single being performing with six voices rather than six individual singers.
At times, it was difficult to tell which singer was singing which part, their individualities melted into each other so well. Even the men's voices blended seamlessly with the women's, thanks to the unusual talent of the ensemble's countertenor, Robert Lawaty, whose voice wove back and forth between tenor and alto with ease.
Accompanied ably by an ensemble of versatile instrumentalists assembled by the consort, the group performed a six-part program including more than two dozen pieces without a director, yet never once seemed to be off-cue.
This was early music as it was meant to be, and the setting couldn't have been better: Washington National Cathedral, with its gray Gothic columns and vaulted ceilings, gave just the feel and look the music needs to be fully appreciated.
An early highlight in the program was a Czech folk dance, "Lidove Tance; Czaldy Waldy," performed by the instrumentalists. Unlike the pensive church pieces that preceded it, the dance was downright rustic and lively, bringing to mind the ethnic tones of Czech composers Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak, though the name of the 15th-century composer will forever be unknown.
The dance featured a kind of folk fiddling most often heard at country fairs, rendered with flair by Robert Eisenstein, the Consort's programming director.
Another bawdy departure from the program's mostly religious fare that captured the region's ethnic flavor was "Duma," a busy, choppy piece about war in which the vocalists appeared to be chattering throughout.
The chanting accelerated toward the end, when one of the vocalists called out loudly and sent the audience tittering.
By contrast, the ensemble's rendering of "Juz sie zmierzka" by Poland's Waclaw of Szamotuly was worshipful and soothing. The rendering of Bartolomiej Pekiel's "Sanctus; Agnus Dei" by a quartet of the male singers was fluid and flawless.
Another folk dance from Hungary, "Ungarescha" by Giorgio Manierio, offered another spirited interlude, though with the bagpipe featured in the work, it sounded more Scottish than Slavic.
Taken as a whole, the consort engaged in more than a little exaggeration by advertising the concert as an evening of "Slavic Splendor." Other than the occasional dance piece, the music in the program was much like the medieval and Renaissance music of Western Europe, albeit by Eastern European authors. Any differences between the French or Italian medieval strains required a scholar's discernment.
Lovers of early music didn't need the hype to thoroughly enjoy the show. Anyone who went expecting something sounding like the "New World Symphony" undoubtedly left disillusioned.

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