No matter how distant its origins, Christmas music across the centuries has a single common trait: a pared-down absence of complication that ensures a joyfully immediate impact. That was particularly the case in the holiday concert by Piffaro, The Renaissance Band, titled "Nouvelle Nouvelle: Christmas in Renaissance France," heard in venues in and around Philadelphia this weekend, with one performance left at 8 tonight at Princeton's All Saints Church.
Augmented by a quartet of solo singers and mime artists from Maryland's Happenstance Theater creating iconic Christmas scenes, Piffaro presented a range of sacred and secular 16th-century music with unusual fusion of extroversion and integrity. Often, this music flies over your head, leaving you thinking, "I guess that's how it was done back then." But when that music is boiled down to essentials, the beauty is more apparent, and so is the strangeness. Motets by Jean Mouton and others usually sung only by voices were transcribed for Piffaro's wind instruments. Thus, what usually sounds like an ethereal mass of sound emerged more clearly as individual strands of music - some going far afield from each other, but - in a remarkable feat of daring and wizardry - maintaining an overall unity.
Wizardry was less present in Claudin de Sermisy's "Missa Voulant Honneur," the core of the program. All of it was worthwhile, though early movements were a bit routine. No great problem. Later movements justified this composer's honored place in the history books. Also, the mass movements were interspersed with the aforementioned motets plus more rustic music, including a bagpipe processional.
Most endearing was a series of "Noels" (it's a musical genre as well as a holiday) found in a 16th-century collection at the rare-book department of the Free Library of Philadelphia. These Christmas poems aren't exactly formal compositions but verse that can be sung to suggested, pre-existing tunes. Through research and invention, Piffaro made folksy pieces that are so melodic they could have been written by some 16th-century version of Irving Berlin. Or so it seemed with fine singers such as soprano Laura Heimes and tenor Philip Anderson on hand.