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"I Mercanti di Venezia - Jewish musicians and Marranos in London and in Northern Italy"

La Bande Montréal Baroque
Dir: Eric Milnes

rec: June 24 - 26, 2008, Mirabel (Québec), Église Saint-Augustin
ATMA - ACD2 2598 (© 2010) (54'15")

Augustine BASSANO (c1526-1604): Fantasia X; Pavana & Galliarda; Giovanni BASSANO (?-1617): Ancor che col partire (De Rore) [2]; Frais et gaillard (Clemens non Papa) [2]; Onques amour (Crecquillon) [2]; Ricercare III [1]; Ricercata II [1]; Ricercata VIII [1]; Ung gay bergier (Crecquillon) [2]; Salomone ROSSI (c1570-1630): Bor'chu et adonoy [5]; Eyn Kelohienu [5]; Sonata V sopra un aria francese [4]; Sonata a 4 [4]; Sonata in dialogo detta la Viena [3]; Sonata sopra l'aria d'un balletto [4]; Sonata sopra l'aria di Ruggiero [3]; Sonata sopra la Bergamesca [4]

(Sources: Giovanni Bassano, [1] Ricercate, passaggi et cadentie per potersi essercitar nel diminuir, 1585; [2] Motetti, madrigali et canzoni francese di diversi autori diminuiti per sonar, 1591; Salomone Rossi, [3] Varie Sonate, Sinfonie, Gagliarde ..., Libro III, 1613; [4] Varie Sonate, Sinfonie, Gagliarde ..., Libro IV, 1622; [5] Hashirim asher lish’lomo, 1622-23

Francis Colpron, recorder; Matthew Jennejohn, recorder, cornett; Mélisande Corriveau, recorder, viola da gamba; Hélène Plouffe, Olivier Brault, violin; Margaret Little, treble & bass viol; Susie Napper, viola da gamba, cello; Olivier Fortin, Eric Milnes, harpsichord, organ

The title of this disc, in English "The Merchants of Venice", is, of course, a reference to William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice. It is used here to express the fact that, although in 1516 the Jews in Venice were forced to live in a ghetto, there was still much interaction between the Jews and the people of Venice at large. They played an important role in finance and trade as well as in arts and sciences.

The best-known composer of Jewish birth in Italy in the early 17th century is certainly Salomone Rossi. In 1589 he was appointed as violinist and singer at the court of Mantua where he worked with Claudio Monteverdi for some time. The Gonzaga dukes exempted Rossi from the obligation to wear the yellow badge - a clear sign of their great appreciation. Rossi has become famous mostly for his collection of motets on Hebrew texts, Hashirim asher lish’lomo, but he also played an important role in the emergence of the trio sonata. Examples are the two last collections with instrumental music which were printed in 1613 and 1622 respectively.

The name Bassano isn't unknown either. What is lesser known is that the Bassanos were very likely also Jews, although there is no absolute certainty about that. Giovanni Bassano is a name which regularly shows up in programmes of diminutions, a very popular genre of instrumental music in the decades around 1600. He wrote an important treatise on ornamentation, entitled Ricercate, passaggi et cadentie per potersi essercitar nel diminuir. From this treatise three ricercares are taken which served as illustrations of his instructions. His own compositions in this genre were printed in 1591, from which four pieces have been included in the programme.

In his liner notes François Filiatrault writes that it isn't known whether Giovanni Bassano was related to the members of the large Bassano family who emigrated to England in the 1530s. But according to the article on the Bassano family in New Grove he is a cousin of Jeronimo Bassano, one of the Bassano brothers who entered the service of the English court. The Bassanos were especially famous for their playing of wind instruments, in particular the recorder. They were also active as instrument makers, and their instruments were in high demand. They fit into this programme as there is circumstantial evidence that they were of Jewish origin as well. Augustine was the son of Alvise, one of the Bassano brothers who came to England. He was appointed Musician in Ordinary for Recorders at the court. Very few compositions by him have been preserved, all in manuscript.

The programme of this disc has been well put together. The pieces which have been selected are well suited to show the development in instrumental music in the decades around 1600, when the transition from the prima prattica to the seconda prattica took place. Especially interesting are the models of ornamentation which are taken from Giovanni Bassani's treatise. And as the level of playing is high from start to finish there seems to be every reason to recommend this disc.

And I do recommend this disc, but not unequivocal. I find it disappointing that the performers have messed around with the scoring of various pieces in the programme. It immediately starts with the very first item, the Sonata sopra l'aria di Ruggiero. It is from the third book of instrumental pieces which is scored for two violins and bc, and in this respect one of the first examples of what would become the trio sonata. Here various instruments are used, either in turn or together playing colla parte. I am not aware of this being practiced in Italy at the time, and it gives this piece an almost orchestral texture which seems to me at odds with the character of this piece. This practice is repeated in the last item, the Sonata sopra la Bergamesca by Rossi.

Another strange habit is to change the scoring midway a piece, as happens in the Bassano's diminutions on Ung gay bergier and on Onques amour. And then there are the two pieces by Augustine Bassano. The use of a violin in the upper part of his Fantasia X is anachronistic, since in his time the violin wasn't played in England. Likewise the participation of a cornett in the Pavana & Galliarda is at odds with the practice of the time: the cornett was almost exclusively used for performances in the open air, not in the chamber - and that is what this piece is certainly intended for.

As good as the performances are, I can't but object to the way historical evidence is treated. It happens often in recordings with early music, but that is no reason to let it pass unnoticed, let alone gloss it over.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Montréal Baroque

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