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Today’s student of renaissance song is blessed: there was nothing as helpful as this in my day – a thoughtfully and beautifully illustrated guide to performance practice that efficiently, succinctly and logically explains evidence from fascinating and authoritative sources in a manner readily accessible to performers who may not relate to an academic, rather than purely practical, approach. Robert Toft’s long familiarity with and understanding of those sources has enabled a distillation and presentation that, while it warns performers to look beyond even the most venerated of modern editions, avoiding well-meaning but possibly misleading editorial decisions, also gives them the means to make their own informed interpretational choices.

Re-creation is the key and Toft asks us to leave the safe compound of mere notation, entering an interpretational minefield across which he is the most trustworthy guide. His explanation of how the principles of Rhetoric as taught to the 16th century schoolchild is particularly revelatory, describing the symbiosis of music and text in ways often improperly understood today. Respect for textual structures is central to Toft’s thesis and all the more necessary for those without a formal background in literature. Performers will also appreciate the section on physical expression, particularly the illustrations of John Bulwar’s 120 hand-gestures.

Principally a lutenist, Toft explains the various vocal effects expected by a renaissance audience while refraining, wisely, from entering into discussion about how they might be achieved in terms of vocal technique. The singer must study how to square these concepts with healthy, efficient singing, which is why I suggest that this book is not for the beginner. There are copious examples, excellent appendices and purchasers also gain access to a password-protected website with further resources.

This is not a prescriptive book: Toft offers suggestions based on the sources but is clearly desirous that the sensitive, intuitive and informed singer will find his/her own way. His conclusions will surprise all who still imagine that dramatic, heart-on-sleeve performance was an invention of the Romantics.

REBECCA TAVENER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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