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Orazio MICHI dell'Arpa (c1595 - 1641): "E che vuoi più?"

Françoise Masset, sopranoa; La Gioannina

rec: Oct 8 - 12, 2012, Courtomer, Église Sainte Geneviève
Agogique - AGO013 (© 2013) (72'49")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643) Toccata per spinettina sola over liutoc [3]; Girolamo KAPSBERGER (1580-1651) Passacagliad [4]; Stefano LANDI (1586-1639): La Gioanninabc; Giovanni DE MACQUE (c1550-1614): Gagliarda Ib; Orazio MICHI dell'Arpa: Alma che ti solleviabe; Ecco di rose infioraabc; Empio corabd; Fermate omai fermateabc; Folle chi credeabe; Io, che del mondo amanteab; Io son amanteabc; Nella bella stagionabc; Pensier ch'al ciel s'en volaabe; Son mie, Signorabd; Sonetto della morte di Christo Signor Nostroad; Sonetto di Papa Urbano VIII sopra Christo crocifissoabd; Su duro troncoabd; Tempo fuabd; T'offesi e me ne pentoad; Vermiglia l'Auroraabc; Vita della mia vitaabc; Giovanni PRIULI (1575-1626): Canzon a duebc; Giovanni Maria TRABACI (1575-1647): Consonanze stravagantib [1]; Gagliarda I detta La Galantebc [2]; Gagliarda IV alla Spagnolabe [2]

Sources: Giovanni Maria Trabaci, [1] Ricercate, Canzone francese, Libro Primo, 1603; [2] Il secondo Libro de Ricercate & altri varij Capricci, 1615; [3] Girolamo Frescobaldi, Il Primo Libro delle Canzoni, 1628; [4] Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, Libro Quarto d'Intavolatura di Chitarrone, 1640

Nanja Breedijk, triple harpb; Rémi Cassaigne, lutec, theorbod, guitare

"Orazio Michi now plays this double harp almost miraculously, not only as regards his enormous skills, but also in terms of his particular way of damping the sound of the strings, which, were they to continue to sound, would cause dissonance and cacophony". Thus praised a contemporary the art of Orazio Michi who had the addition "dell'Arpa" to his name. He was mentioned in the same breath as Frescobaldi, the greatest master of the harpsichord in his time, and the theorbo virtuoso Kapsberger. All three worked in Rome.

Michi was born in Alife, near Caserta, not far from Naples. There he probably received his first lessons at the harp as this instrument was one of the most appreciated in early 17th-century Naples. The two most distinguished harpists were Giovanni de Macque and Giovanni Maria Trabaci; both composed a large number of pieces for the instrument. No pieces for the harp by Michi have been preserved. In all probability he mostly improvised as was the habit of instrumental virtuosos at the time.

In 1613 he entered the service of Cardinal Montalto in Rome who accumulated so much wealth that he could support the arts, and especially music. Michi was richly rewarded for his service. Rémi Cassaigne, in his liner notes, mentions that he received an annual pension of 300 scudi, whereas all other employers of the Cardinal received only 3 scudi per month. Shortly before his death in 1623 the Cardinal left Michi an additional annual pension of 2,000 golden scudi. After the Cardinal's death Michi entered the service of various other Cardinals. He also had connections with various institutions in the city to which he left his belongings in his will. The French gambist and writer André Maugars was in Rome in 1637 or 1638 and later reported his musical experiences. He had some rather negative things to say about Michi. Apart from jealousy, as Cassaigne suggests, this could well be a token of a decline in Michi's skills. That was probably due to his ill health as the inventory of his furniture includes an invalid's chair.

The largest part of Michi's music, which is exclusively for voice and basso continuo, has been preserved in two manuscripts in the Biblioteca Casanatense and in a manuscript which is held in the Biblioteca Nazionale, both in Rome. The content is quite different. The pieces in the former two manuscripts were apparently written for public performances at an oratory, whereas the latter is a kind of personal notebook. The handwriting is less polished, and the placement of the basso continuo figures in some of the vocal parts - rather than on a different stave - suggests a performance by a singer who accompanies himself. These pieces are mostly secular, whereas the items in the first two manuscripts are of a moral and spiritual nature. Several of them implicitly or more explicitly refer to Jesus's death on the cross. An example of the former is Empio cor: "Ungodly heart, ungrateful heart, your blows have nailed me to this wood". Much more explicit is the Sonetto di Papa Urbano VIII sopra Christo crocifisso, whose text was written by pope Urban VIII, a member of the powerful Barberini family and another important patron of the arts. Folle, folle chi crede is a specimen of a moralistic piece: "Crazy, crazy is he who believes that our pride sits gladly on a jeweled throne". Expressive language is a notable feature of all these pieces. It was the task of the singer to communicate this, according to the ideals of recitar cantando. The texts include exclamations, questions and commands, and dynamics are very important to convey them. The messa di voce - the swelling on a single note - was one of the frequently used means to achieve this.

Françoise Masset understands this and uses it too good effect. In general she pays much attention to the text and applies all the means which singers at the time had at their disposal to communicate the content of a piece. That includes dynamic shading, a free treatment of the rhythm and the colouring of the voice. Some pieces have a strophic texture, such as Pensier ch'al ciel s'en vola, and here she displays her skills in the ornamentation department.

As we have no instrumental pieces from Michi's pen, compositions by Frescobaldi, de Macque, Trabaci and Kapsberger are used as compensation. They give a good impression of the technical skills which were required from players of the keyboard, the harp and plucked instruments. A large part of the repertoire for these instruments is interchangeable and can be played on either of them. They also show the same sense of experimentation, for instance in harmony and the use of chromaticism, as many of Michi's vocal works. Nanja Breedijk and Rémi Cassaigne deliver fine performances of these pieces and give effective support to Ms Masset, all in the interest of the expression of the text.

There is just one thing I regret: Françoise Masset uses a bit too much vibrato which is stylistically untenable. However, it doesn't dissuade me from recommending this disc. It is a compelling musical portrait of the fascinating music of Michi and his time.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Françoise Masset
La Gioannina

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