musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"The Italian Ground"

Ludovico's Band

rec: Feb 19 - 23, 2006, Melbourne, Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Southbank Centre (Iwaki Auditorium)
ABC Classics - 476 6158 (© 2007) (59'49")

anon: The Italian Ground; Bellerofonte CASTALDI (1580-1649): Quagliotta Canzone; Bernardo GIANONCELLI (?-c1650): Bergamasca; Corrente; Galliarda; Tastegiata; Giovanni Girolamo KAPSBERGER (c1580-1651): Canario; Colascione; Kapsberger; Toccata; Alonso MUDARRA (c1510-1580): Fantasia que contrahaze la harpa en la manera de Ludovico; Santiago DE MURCIA (c1682-c1732): Cumbees; Gaitas; Alessandro PICCININI (1566-1638): Chiaccona in partite variate; Lucas Ruiz DE RIBAYAZ (1626-after 1677): Chaconas; Españoletas; Marionas; Tarantella; Gaspar SANZ (1640-c1710): Canciones; Dos trompetas de la Reyna de Suecia; Folias; La Cavalleria de Napoles con dos Clarines; La Esfachata de Cataluña; Lantururu; Paradetas; Rujero; Zarabanda

Ruth Wilkinson, viola da gamba; Marshall McGuire, triple harp; Tommie Andersson, Samantha Cohen, theorbo, guitar; Guy du Blêt, percussion

The name of this Australian ensemble has been derived from Ludovico, a famous Italian-born Spanish harp player from the early 16th century. In 1555 Juan Bermudo wrote a treatise on several instruments, in which he described the playing technique of Ludovico. So famous was he that Alonso Mudarra, one of Spain's most prominent composers of music for the vihuela, composed a piece which aimed at imitating Ludovico's harp playing: Fantasia que contrahaze la harpa en la manera de Ludovico.

One isn't inclined to associate Spain with the harp, but a Moroccan diplomat, who visited Spain at the end of the 17th century during a diplomatic mission, noted its important place in Spanish culture: "The Christians make much use of it and teach it to their wives, sons and daughters. Hence it is rare to find a home all of whose indwellers do not skilfully pluck the harp. (...) The persons who most cultivate this instrument are the sons and daughters of the great and noble."

Ludovico's harp was a diatonic instrument, which during the 17th century was replaced by the double harp, with two rows of strings, one tuned diatonically, the second row adding the chromatic tones. And although the harp remained an important instrument in Spain, in popularity it was surpassed by gut-stringed instruments, in particular the guitar. One of the reasons was its size: the guitar was much smaller and therefore more portable than the harp. Most music on this disc by Spanish composers, like Gaspar Sanz and Santiago de Murcia, was written for the guitar.

The other part of the programme is devoted to music for plucked instruments by Italian composers. The main instrument here was the theorbo or chitarrone. Two of the main composers for this instrument are represented here: Giovanni Girolamo (or Johann Hieronymus) Kapsberger and Giovanni Piccinini. Kapsberger was born in Venice as son of an Austrian diplomat. In 1605 he went to Rome where members of the Barberini family were among his patrons. He mixed with the highest circles, and as a musician and composer he was held in high esteem. That is also the case with Piccinini, who for some time worked at the court of the d'Estes in Ferrara. He contributed to the development of the theorbo and the archlute, "his innovation probably consisting of the idea of lenghtening the neck of the instruments to carry a second set of longer, low-pitched strings" (Graeme Skinner). Bellerofonte Castaldi was also involved in the development of plucked instruments: he claimed to be the inventor of the tiorbino, a small version of the theorbo with the strings tuned an octave higher.

Of course, there are differences between the Italian and Spanish pieces on this disc, but there are also strong similarities. Composers often made use of the same thematic material, much of which was popular throughout Europe. Many of these belong to the category of the ostinato, a repeated musical pattern. So we meet here the chaconne (Piccinini, De Ribayaz), the Bergamasca (Gianoncelli), the Folia (Sanz), the Ruggiero (Sanz: Rujero) and the Spagnoletta (De Ribayaz: Españoletas). The ostinato pattern was called ground in England, as the last piece on this disc shows.

Ludovico's Band is a fine ensemble of highly accomplished performers which give a good account of their skills on this disc. From this perspective one can only recommend this recording. But: the lengthy and very informative programme notes fail to make clear why this programme has been put together this way. What, for instance, do Kapsberger and Piccinini have in common with Sanz and De Ribayaz? Is this recording about the harp, or about the guitar, or the theorbo? What exactly had these musicians in mind while recording this programme?

More serious are the question marks regarding the interpretation, and in particular the instrumentation of the compositions on this disc. Most of them are written for a single plucked instrument, either the harp or the guitar or the theorbo. But here most pieces are played with additional instruments: sometimes a second plucked instrument, sometimes a viola da gamba. Most absurd seems the addition of percussion in a number of pieces. Kapsberger's music is highly sophisticated and written for performances in aristocratic circles. I don't think his compositions will have been performed at, for instance, the papal court in Rome with added percussion. Castaldi's Quagliotta Canzone is one of his duets for tiorbino and theorbo, which the booklet calls a "mother-son pair". But the effect the composer was aiming at is nullified here by playing the part of the tiorbino on the harp. I fail to see the reasons why this music has to be 'pimped up' this way. All music on this disc has enough quality of its own to be performed in accordance with the composers' intentions.

Those who want to listen to great music in fine performances and don't care about the composers' intentions will be rewarded by purchasing this disc. But those who - like I - are interested in what composers had in mind are going to be disappointed.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

CD Reviews