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Giovanni Girolamo KAPSBERGER (1580 - 1651): I Pastori di Bettelemme

Constanze Backes, Clementine Jesdinsky, Chiyuki Okamura, soprano; Franz Vitzthum, alto; Christian Dietz, tenor; Markus Flaig, bass
Echo du Danube

rec: August 12 - 15, 2009, Cologne, Melanchthon-Kirche
Accent - ACC 24231 (© 2010) (74'14")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & tracklist

Giovanni Lorenzo BALDANO (1576-1660): Fantasia pastorale; La Bergamasca; Paso e mezo, Gagliarda; Giovanni Girolamo KAPSPERGER: Corrente V; Figlio dormi; Hodie Christus natus est; I Pastori di Bettelemme nella nascita di N.S. Giesu Christo, dialogo posto in musica; In diem natalem Iesu Christi; Laudate Dominum; Piva; Sinfonia I à 4 con 2 bassi; Toccata II

Eva Morsbach, recorder; Horst Grimm, sordellina; Florian Deuter, Mónica Waisman, violin; Christian Zincke, viola da gamba, lirone, violone; Elisabeth Seitz, psalterion; Johanna Seitz, harp; Michael Dücker, lute, chitarrone, guitar; Michael Reudenbach, organ

Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger - or Johann Hieronymus Kapsberger, the name which he was given at his birth - was one of the most famous players of the chitarrone in Italy in the first half of the 17th century. He moved among the highest circles and enjoyed the protection of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, one of the members of the Barberini family to which also belonged Pope Urban VIII, who was elected in 1623.

Today Kapsperger is mainly known for his music for his own instrument. But he was also a prolific writer of vocal works, both sacred and secular. These are written in the modern monodic style of his time. The theorist Athanasius Kircher praised his qualities in this department in his book Musurgia universalis (1650): "Hieronymus Kapsperger contributed various things to the Stylus Rezitativus, that are composed with the highest taste and the greatest practical knowledge, and certainly they are very worthy compositions, so that they are emulated by the musicians". The work which has been recorded by Echo du Danube is a good example of Kapsperger's skills as a composer of vocal music.

This work was printed in 1630 as a Dialogo posto in musica. The liner-notes describe it as a "sacred dialogue madrigal" and a forerunner of the oratorio. The differences between this piece and the later compositions, for instance by Giacomo Carissimi, which are called "oratorio" are almost negligible. It begins with a Sinfonia, and then follows a dialogue between five shepherds, expressing their longing for the birth of the Messiah as promised by God. The solos are interspersed by tutti passages. Next is a solo by an angel, announcing the birth of Jesus and urging the shepherds to visit him. A chorus expresses the joy of Jesus' birth. Then a testo enters, the same role as the historicus in Carissimi's oratorios. He connects the story of Jesus' birth to the papacy of Urban VIII: "May Phoebus open the doors of the New Year for a happy future, in the joyous sparkle of the first light of day. And may one now hear the Vatican proclaim years of blessings for the glorious Urban". The part of the testo is first sung by a solo voice and then by the tutti. In the closing part of the dialogo three angels gather around the crib and express what Jesus' birth means for the world. Then they lull him to sleep.

There are several interesting aspects as far as the interpretation is concerned. One of the instruments participating in the performance - and required by the composer - is the sordellina, a bagpipe with two melody pipes. It is used in the middle of the dialogue of the shepherds in the first episode. Kapsperger himself indicated that the basso continuo could be played by all instruments which were able to play harmony. The performers have taken this as an opportunity to use a psalterion. This instrument was praised by the already mentioned Athanasius Kircher as particularly lovely, and the author of the libretto of Kapsperger's dialogue, Giulio Rospigliosi, had such an instrument built for him after he was elected as Pope Clemens IX. Even so, the participation of a psalterion in this particular piece cannot be proven, and has to be considered speculative.

In the booklet Michael Dücker describes under what circumstances a piece like this was performed, at Christmas Eve in the Apostolic Palace, after Vespers and preceding Matins. This does not include the performance of other music. Here I Pastori di Bettelemme is preceded by instrumental pieces by Baldano - who was a specialist at the sordellina - and Kapsperger himself. That isn't much of a problem, nor the repetition of the opening piece at the close of this disc. Questionable is the inclusion of sacred concertos by Kapsperger and instrumental pieces by Kapsperger and Baldano. In my view this wasn't a very happy decision as it breaks up the story. That said, the pieces are well-chosen. The announcement of Jesus' birth by the angel is followed by a setting of Hodie Christus natus est, and the chorus which expresses the joy of Jesus' birth by a 'piva' - an instrumental piece by Kapsperger - and a setting of Psalm 150, Laudate Dominum. The cradlesong which ends the dialogue is followed by a lullaby with a secular text, but quite appropriate. Ironically the producers also seem to have felt that the additional pieces in a way break up the story, as the lyrics are placed after the dialogue in the booklet. Not very convenient, though.

Kapsperger's dialogue is largely written in the monodic style. But there are also some episodes of a more aria-like character, reflecting the development in writing for the voice in the second quarter of the century. The text is still in the centre, but not always as dominant anymore as it was at the beginning of the century. In this respect Kapsperger's work is close to the style of Cavalli and later Carissimi. Both aspects come off perfectly in the performances of the soloists. Unfortunately the booklet doesn't tell which singer takes which role. They all meet the ideal of recitar cantando, speech-like singing. That is in particular the case with the sopranos who take the roles of the First Shepherd (Primo Pastore) and the angel (Angelo). The tutti are often written in a dance-like rhythm, and that is excellently realised by singers and players. The latter also greatly contribute to the impact of this interpretation. The instrumental pieces are very well executed.

This disc presents a very fine specimen of the emerging genre of the oratorio. It is done full justice by the performers. That makes this production a worthwhile addition to the catalogue of Christmas music.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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