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Francesca CACCINI (1587 - c1641): "O viva rosa"

Shannon Mercer, soprano; Amanda Keesmaat, cello; Sylvain Bergeron, theorbo, guitar; Luc Beauséjour, harpsichord, organ

rec: Nov 2 - 4, 2009, Mirabel (Québec), Église Saint-Augustin
Analekta - AN 2 9966 (© 2010) (61'54")

Ch'Amor sia nudo; Dolce Maria; Dov'io credea le mie speranze vere; Fresche aurette; Io mi distruggo; Io veggio i campi verdeggiar fecondi; La pastorella; Lasciatemi qui solo; Non sò se quel sorriso; O chiome belle; O vive rose; [Quattro Canzoni di mio padre] (ed. Sylvain Bergeron); Regina celi; Rendi alle mie speranze il verde; S'io men vò; Se muove; Su le piume de' venti trionfator; Te lucis ante terminum

The name Giulio Caccini appears in every book on music history. He was the first representative of the stile nuovo, and himself claimed to be its inventor. Far less commonly known is that he had a daughter who was very famous as a singer, and who also made a name for herself as a composer. The best-known female composer of the 17th century is certainly Barbara Strozzi, whose music is very well represented on disc. In comparison little attention has been paid to the music of Francesca Caccini. So it was a splendid idea of Shannon Mercer and Luc Beauséjour to put together a programme with her music.

Francesca Caccini must have enjoyed a very good education: not only was she a virtuosic singer, she also played the keyboard, the guitar and the harp, and wrote poety in Italian and Latin. As a singer she is assumed to have participated in the first performance of Jacopo Peri's opera L'Euridice, and also in her father's opera Il rapimento di Cefalo, both in 1600. For most of her life she was at the service of the Medici family, and moved in the highest circles, marrying a nobleman after her first husband had died.

Compared to Barbara Strozzi modern performers have little to choose from in Francesca Caccini's oeuvre. She wrote a considerable number of dramatic works, all of which are lost, with the exception of the comedy La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina. Otherwise there’s just one book with pieces for one and two voices and basso continuo. It was printed in 1618 and is entitled Il primo libro delle musiche. It contained pieces of a various character as the programme on this disc shows.

Some are canzonettas, strophic pieces with a pretty strict, mostly dance-like rhythm, as O vive rose, which opens the programme. S'io men vò is also strophic, but includes a refrain. Often canzonettas are of a somewhat light-hearted nature, like the closing piece, Fresche aurette, but they can also be serious, as Se muove a giurar fede. Because of their strophic structure there is little freedom for the performer. Ornaments should be added, but the rhythm must be strictly observed. Shannon Mercer does just that: she explores the possibilities for ornamentation, but the often infectious rhythms remain intact.

There is more freedom in the arias and madrigals. Often they are not strophic (La pastorella), but even if they are, like Lasciatemi qui solo, there is much more rhythmic freedom, which allows for the addition of virtuosic ornaments, in particular to emphasize elements in the text or express the affetti. The madrigals are more or less of the same structure. Shannon Mercer's performance of these pieces is very impressive. Her ornaments are technically impeccable, stylish and differentiated.

An important aspect of the interpretation of Italian music from the 17th century is the treatment of dynamics. Crescendi and diminuendi were often used for expressive reasons. The messa di voce was one of the tools singers were expected to use. In recordings of this kind of repertoire I have often noticed that singers ignore that aspect. I am happy to say that Shannon Mercer does not, although she sometimes is too modest in this respect. Even so, dynamically her performances are anything but flat. And that deserves praise.

If my assessment of this disc were dependent on Shannon Mercer's singing alone, I would unequivocally recommend it. But unfortunately a number of things hold me back from doing so.

First of all, the production is very sloppy. The booklet does not offer any lyrics; they can be downloaded as a pdf file from the Analekta site. However the lyrics of several pieces are missing: Dolce Maria, Regina celi and Su le piume de' venti trionfator. The lyrics which are included are riddled with errors, and Dov'io credea le mie speranze vere is printed without an English translation. In addition they are printed out of order, and you have to scroll up and down to find the right text.

And then there is the issue of the scoring. "While most of the pieces were probably accompanied by theorbo at the time, the musicians on this recording decided to use a fuller continuo, as implied by the inclusion of a bass line in the score", the programme notes say. The performers wanted a more varied and lively instrumentation. I ask: why? If the music is good as Francesca Caccini's, that is really unnecessary. In this repertoire it is the vocal line which is completely dominant, as Francesca's father Giulio never stopped reminding people. The scoring of the basso continuo part sometimes has desastrous results: in Lasciatemi qui solo the cello is sometimes so loud that it almost overpowers the voice. It is also stated by Luc Beauséjour that the organ is used in sacred pieces. But it is also used in Io mi distruggo: "I waste away, and burn, nor do I find comfort for my pain, or peace, for a single merciful glance cannot temper Love’s burning torch, nor can I vent my pain with tears." What is sacred about that? And whether the madrigal Dolce Maria is a kind of sacred madrigal is anybody's guess, as the lyrics are not printed in the pdf file, but here an organ is used as well.

Io veggio i campi verdeggiar fecondi is performed here in an instrumental version for which I can't see a reason. In fact, if in Caccini's time such a piece was performed instrumentally it is very likely that it would have been played with additional passaggi, and that is more than just the addition of some ornaments as is the case here. Ironically the lyrics of this piece are included in the pdf file. Sylvain Bergeron plays Quattro Canzoni di mio padre, a fantasy title for a piece of his own making: a compilation of four arias by Giulio Caccini and played on the guitar. It would have been nice if the titles of these four pieces had been specified, but even so I don't see the reasoning behind this undertaking.

I still recommend this disc, because Francesca Caccini's music is excellent and badly represented on disc. Moreover, Shannon Mercer's singing is a delight to listen to and I am very happy about her performances. That makes it even more regrettable that several aspects of this recording are highly questionable and that the production is so careless.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Shannon Mercer
Luc Beauséjour

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