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Mission to Egypt

Francis of Assisi (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


Mission to Egypt

Album captures the flavor of Francis’ attempt to convert a sultan

1219: The Saint and the Sultan (Berlin Classics), the latest recording by Mehmet Cemal Yeşilçay and his Pera Ensemble, commemorates the 800th anniversary of Francis of Assisi’s journey to Damietta, Egypt, the economic heart of the 13th-century Muslim world, to convert the sultan al-Malik al-Kamil.

The context came with unusual perils. The Fifth Crusade was underway, and Francis was therefore “the enemy,” subject to imprisonment, torture, and execution. He experienced at least one of the first two. He avoided the third but not for lack of trying: At one point, he challenged al-Kamil’s priests to an “ordeal of fire.” (They declined.) In the end, the sultan proved as almost-persuadable as Agrippa had while listening to Paul. And Francis, who had expected either a miracle or martyrdom, was honorably escorted back to the crusaders’ camp. 

To capture in music the flavor of such a dramatic event must have been daunting. Yet Yeşilçay and his ensemble have captured exactly that.

From the crusader hymn “Deus Lo Vult: Pax in Nominee Domini,” which opens Disc 1, to “Surah Al-Hujurat 9/13 & Surah Al-Ahzab 33/56,” which concludes Disc 2, 1219 combines vintage Oriental and Occidental compositions and texts, situating spirited singing and original-language recitations amid period-piece instrumental virtuosity.

Ultimately, what eventuates over the course of 1219’s distinctively Middle Eastern–sounding two hours and 13 minutes feels less like a competition of worldviews (although it was, and remains, that) and more like the mutually respectful dialogue that historians believe actually took place between Francis and al-Kamil once each got over his surprise at the other’s not being as threatening or as antagonistic as he’d expected.

LIKE 1219, the 10 selections constituting John Zorn’s suite for three acoustic guitars Nove Cantici per Francesco d’Assisi (Tzadik) were inspired by the poor man of Assisi. Unlike 1219, they focus not on a specific Franciscan episode but on highlights from throughout the course of Francis’ life and thought.

The pieces owe their genesis to Zorn’s 2018 residency at New York City’s Frick museum and contain no lyrics, so the titles do much of the heavy lifting. The 3½-minute “Fioretti,” for instance, refers to the collection of Franciscan legends known in English as The Little Flowers, the seven-minute “Meditations” to Giovanni Bellini’s painting Saint Francis in the Desert (which also provides the cover art).

The heaviest lifting, however, is done by the guitarists Julian Lage, Gyan Riley, and Bill Frisell, whose intricate and tensile interactions make the lifting seem light.

They’re at their lightest on “Poor Clares,” the title of which alludes to the order of contemplative nuns founded by Francis’ best-known female disciple and the melody and lilt of which escort the spirit of not only the Clares but also Erik Satie (in his Gymnopédie mode) into the 21st century.  

LONG BEFORE ZORN took up the Franciscan theme, Hartmann von An der Lan-Hochbrunn—a Franciscan monk, composer, and organist better known as Father Hartmann—delivered the oratorio San Francesco. It’s a too-little-known work whose 1998 live recording by Sylvia Rieser, Barbara Hölz, Frieder Lang, Vito Maria Brunetti, and the Haydn Orchestra has just been reissued by Nar Classical in a budget-priced, MP3-only edition.

Reviewing a 1902 performance of San Francesco, the critic Eduard Hanslick called it a “clean, pleasant, and uncomplicated” work that, along with Hartmann’s other oratorios, he had “learned to appreciate with genuine delight.” Faint though such praise may seem, coming from Hanslick, who did not hand out encomiums lightly, it meant something.

And now, with the Haydn Orchestra’s stately performance back in circulation, anyone with $5.99 can find out what that genuinely delightful something was.