musica Dei donum

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"Fare la nina na - Christmas music of the Italian baroque"

Capriola di Gioia

rec: Jan 2013, Brughes, Hospitaal van Onze-Lieve-Vrouw (chapel)
Aeolus - AE-10073 (© 2013) (68'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

anon: Ninna, nanna; Perche dolce bambino (sopra la Nascita di N.S.); Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605-1674): Salve, salve puellule; Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676): O quam suavis; Domenico FRANZAROLI (fl 18th C): Pastorale per la notte del SS. Nataleb; Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Se l'aura spira; Giovanni Battista DA GAGLIANO (1594-1651): Stelle del mare; Bonifatio GRATIANI (1605-1664): Gaudia, pastores; Venite, pastores; A. Sebastian HAIM (fl 18th C): Pastorale per organoc; Giovanni Girolamo KAPSBERGER (c1580-1651): Figlio dormi, dormi figlioa; Biagio MARINI (1597?-1665): Con le stelle in ciel (Nativitą di Christo); Tarquinio MERULA (1595-1665): Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna (Hor che tempo di dormire); Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): Laudate Dominum (SV 287); Alessandro PICCININI (1566-1638): Toccata in G; Francesco TURINI (1589-1656): Sonata a 3 'E tanto tempo hormai'

Amaryllis Dieltiens, soprano; Koen Dieltiens, Dimos de Beun, recorder; Liam Fenelly, viola da gamba; Sofie Vanden Eynde, theorbo (soloa); Jurgen De bruyn, archlute, guitar; Bart Naessens, harpsichord (solob), organ (soloc)

Christmas is one of the main feasts on the church calender. Its importance dates from the Middle Ages; in the early Christian Church Easter was considered the highlight of the year, and that is still the case in the Russian and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. From early on doctrine has been mingled with fantasy and this has created a number of traditions which have lived on well into our own time. Some elements turn up in many compositions written in the renaissance and baroque periods. These are connected to some of the key characters in the Christmas story: baby Jesus in his manger, the Virgin Mary, the angels announcing the birth of God's son and the shepherds and the wise men paying homage to the new-born King.

The present disc focuses on music by Italian composers of the 17th century. Around 1600 the stile nuovo emerged which emphasized the importance of the affetti related to the texts which were to be translated into music. This new style turned out to be the ideal medium to bring the message of Christmas closer to the people. Among the most eloquent examples are the so-called ninne, a whole category of lullabies in which Mary is portrayed as the mother who rocks her child asleep while talking to him. It is notable how often here the sweetness often associated with Christmas is spoilt by references to Jesus' Passion. The most famous specimen of such a piece is Hor ch'č tempo di dormire by Tarquinio Merula. It has been recorded many times, but obviously could not be omitted here. It is not unique, though: Perche dolce bambino by an anonymous composer, probably written by the castrato Marc'Antonio Pasqualini (c1614-1691), begins with the question to Jesus why he is weeping, and he then answers: "I want to weep so that you do not weep". Ninna, nanna is another anonymous piece, written in Naples, and expresses the same thought. The first two stanzas end with the phrase: "Sleep, my son, and don't cry, the time for sadness will come". In contrast, these thoughts of the time of suffering and death are absent from Kapsberger's Figlio dormi, dormi figlio.

Somewhat different is Salve, puellule by Giacomo Carissimi. This is again about baby Jesus: "Welcome, small boy of royal nature, welcome, little child from the heavenly chamber". It is not a lullaby but rather an expression of joy about his birth, but not without some dark streaks. These don't come from references to his Passion, but rather to the humble circumstances of his birth: "[Poor] child that hides itself under a humble roof, (...) you have become a companion of the animals". Con le stelle in ciel by Biagio Marini is a remarkable piece which has the addition Nativitą di Christo. That is just as well, because the text includes only a couple of explicit references to Jesus. Otherwise one could take it for a kind of love song; the character of the text is very close to what was common in madrigals and secular songs of the time.

The shepherds are the subject of several pieces. In Gaudia, pastores by Bonifatio Gratiani the angel Gabriel speaks: "Rejoice, shepherds, I announced to you the yearned-for gift of peace". He urges the shepherds to join him in his praise and to go to pay Jesus homage. In this piece declamatory and more lyrical passages alternate. Gratiani also composed Venite, pastores, in which the shepherds are again incited to go "to see the word in the child".

The Virgin Mary is the subject of two pieces. With the development of Marian devotion she was given various names, such as stella maris, Star of the Sea. That is also the title of Stella del mare, a strophic piece by Giovanni Battista da Gagliano: "Star of the Sea, Queen of Heaven, it is this that appears holy and divine and bright, escort and portal to paradise". O quam suavis by Francesco Cavalli has a text with strong reminiscences of the Song of Songs. In his oeuvre we find the development towards more lyricism which would result in the division between recitative and aria towards the end of the 17th century. Both elements are already present here.

The programme is rounded up with some items which have little or nothing to do with Christmas. The sacred concerto Laudate Dominum is one of Monteverdi's best-known pieces; it is a setting of Psalm 150. Equally well-known is Se l'aura spira by Frescobaldi; it is a secular piece without any religious connotations. There is also no connection between the instrumental pieces and Christmas, except the two keyboard works; however, these are from the 18th rather than the 17th century. I wonder why the performers didn't try to find some keyboard works from the same period as the vocal items.

I have reviewed several recordings of this ensemble. I was enthusiastic about the first I heard, also with Italian music ("Ohimč - Love, passion and mystery in baroque Italy"), but I found their Boccherini disc a little short on expression. That is certainly not the case here. This a particularly fine disc with a mixture of familiar and little-known pieces. Amaryllis Dieltiens has the ideal voice for this repertoire. Technically her performances are flawless, but she also shows a great understanding of the character of this music: the text expression in these pieces is fully explored. Merula's famous lullaby is given a very good performance; here she can compete with several first-class, and probably more famous, colleagues. She adds tasteful ornamentation, and I especially like the dynamic shading, for instance through applying the messa di voce; listen, for instance, to the opening of Gratiani's Gaudia, pastores. Only in Monteverdi's Laudate Dominum I find her a little too restrained. The instrumentalists give fine accounts of their parts, both in the instrumental works and in the vocal items. The recorders blend well with Dieltiens' voice.

Add to that a booklet with informative liner-notes and the complete lyrics with translations in the main languages, and one understands that this disc is a real gem, which can be listened to every time of the year.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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