musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"La grazia delle donne"

Myriam Leblanc, soprano
Ensemble La Cigale
Dir: Madeleine Owen

rec: May 5 - 7, 2020, Sainte-Julie, Église de Sainte-Julie
Analekta - AN 2 9159 (© 2021) (69'41")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

"Alessia ALDOBRANDINI" (Donatella GALLETTI): Passacaglia in memoria del Sig. Filiberto Tula, musicista e viaggiatore; Vittoria ALEOTTI (c1575-after 1620): Baciai per haver vita [1]; Hor che la vaga aurora [1]; Io v'amo vita mia [1]; Giulio CACCINI (1551-1618): Udite amanti [2]; Francesca CACCINI (1587-after 1641): Ch'amor sia nudo [3]; Se muove a giurar fede [3]; Settimia CACCINI (1591-c1638): Si miei tormenti; Isabella LEONARDA (1620-1704): Purpurei flores [7]; Sonata I [6]; Barbara STROZZI (1619-1677): Hor che Apollo [5]; Lagrime mie, a che vi trattene (Lamento) [4]; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Sonata in d minor, op. 1,12 'La Follia' (RV 63) [8]

Sources: [1] Vittoria Aleotti, Ghirlanda de madrigali a quatro voci, 1593; [2] Giulio Caccini, Le nuove musiche, 1601; [3] Francesca Caccini, Il primo libro delle musiche 1618/R; Barbara Strozzi, [4] Diporti di Euterpe, overo Cantate e ariette a voce sola, op. 7, 1659/R; [5] Arie a voce sola, op. 8, 1664; Isabella Leonarda, [6] Sonate à 1. 2, 3. e 4 istromenti, op. 16, 1693; [7] Motetti a voce sola, con istromenti, op. 20, 1700; [8] Antonio Vivaldi, Suonate da camera a 3, op. 1, 1705

Vincent Lauzer, recorder; Sari Tsuji, violin; Marie-Michel Beauparlant, cello; Sara Lackie, harp; Madeleine Owen, theorbo, guitar

In the course of the last twenty years or so quite a number of recordings have been devoted to the oeuvre of female composers of the baroque era. Most of them were working in Italy; the best-known exception is Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. Italian female composers fall into two categories. On the one hand, some were active as performing musicians, in particular singers, in public places, and also composed secular music. Two of them have become well-known: Barbara Strozzi and Francesca Caccini. On the other hand, women's convents often had nuns in their ranks who were musically gifted, either as singers or as players of instruments, and several of them also contributed to the repertoire of sacred music for the daily liturgical practice in their own convents. Some of the repertoire they produced was also published, either in separate editions or included in anthologies. This explains why the scoring is mostly not specifically adapted to the forces available to them (sopranos and altos).

The disc under review includes only one sacred piece: Purpurei flores by Isabella Leonarda is a piece in honour of the Virgin Mary. It opens with the words: "Bright flowers, form a garland to adorn Mary with your earthly beauty". Leonarda was from Novara in northern Italy, where she lived all her life. In 1636 she entered the Collegio di S Orsola, where she acted as music instructor and became later mother superior and madre vicaria. She was a productive composer: the last printed collection with pieces from her pen dates from 1700 and had the opus number 20. Some parts of her oeuvre have been lost. Most of her output is vocal and sacred, but she also published a collection of sonatas, which are likely the first ever published by a woman. The Sonata I from this first set is included here.

The name of Aleotti has caused some confusion. Two Aleotti's are known: Vittoria and Raffaella. It has been suggested that they are identical. Vittoria is known to have been a prodigy at the harpsichord. In 1593 a collection of madrigals for four voices was published. Since then her presence is not documented. It has led to the assumption that she 'lived on', as it were, under the name of Raffaella, which she may have adopted when she entered the Augustinian convent of S Vito in Ferrara. The fact that her collection of motets - her only extant work - was also published in 1593 may support the view that Vittoria and Raffaella are one and the same person. The programme includes three madrigals which are taken from the collection of 'Vittoria'.

Giulio Caccini was one of the pioneers of the seconda pratica in the field of vocal music. He was a singer, who accompanied himself, and a promoter of the monodic style. This resulted in several collections of songs for voice and basso continuo, in which the text was in the centre; the music was the text's servant and was used to emphasize the emotions (affetti) it aimed to communicate. This style was also adopted by his daughters Francesca and Settimia, who both made a career as singers. Whereas Francesca is rather well-known and her songs - from her own collection Il primo libro delle musiche of 1618 - and her only extant opera (all other stage works have been lost) are available in several recordings, Settimia is hardly known. Only eight of her songs have been preserved, and one of them is included here.

Little needs to be said about Barbara Strozzi; she was a celebrity in her time, despite being a woman. She was admired for her singing, her knowledge and her compositions. Between 1644 and 1664 eight collections were printed, ranging from madrigals for three to five voices (opus 1) to arias for solo voice and basso continuo (opus 8). All but one of these collections have been preserved; only opus 4 has been lost. The two pieces included here are taken from the Opp. 7 and 8 respectively, and show a high amount of emotion and drama, which is one of the hallmarks of Strozzi's style of composing.

One may wonder why this disc includes pieces by two male composers. In the case of Giulio Caccini that can be easily explained: it shows where his daughters got their talent from and who inspired them in their way of composing. Antonio Vivaldi is included here as in his capacity as teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà, he directed the ensemble of the orphan girls who lived there. He composed some of his music for them, among whom were quite a number of virtuosos on their instruments. The inclusion of one of Vivaldi's best-known and most brilliant works may serve as a tribute to these mostly unknown virtuosos, of whom no compositions - if they ever wrote any - have been preserved.

This disc is another valuable contribution to our knowledge of the compositional activities of women in the baroque era. One could argue that their compositions should be part of recordings of music of their time, and should be treated on equal footing with music by their male peers. That is right, but as long as that is not the case, discs such as this one are probably the only way to demonstrate that their music is in no way inferior to that of many of their male contemporaries. Given that Barbara Strozzi is very well represented on disc - many are even entirely devoted to her oeuvre - it is a bit of a shame that two of her compositions - together taking 23 minutes - are included here. I would have liked to hear more pieces by Leonarda and Aleotti instead. The recording of the latter's oeuvre here is welcome, though, and also the performance of a piece by Settimia Caccini, of whom I had not heard before.

Myriam Leblanc is a very fine singer; she is a specialist in early music, and that shows. She has a flexible voice and produces a sweet tone, but she has also enough dramatic instincts to bring to life the pieces by Strozzi. Articulation and dynamic shading as well as the communication of the text are what this repertoire needs. The playing of the instrumentalists is also very good.

However, there is one major issue which bothers me, and that concerns the line-up. The recorder plays a major role in this recording, and I am not that happy with it. The first reason is a musical one: the recorder mostly partners the soprano, and it is often too obtrusive. In the pieces in which the violin is also involved, the latter is largely overshadowed by the recorder. The second reason is historical. There can be no doubt that the recorder was played in 17th-century Italy. However, its role seems to be rather modest. In the article on the recorder in New Grove Italy does not take a prominent place. It is also notable that some of the main composers of instrumental music in 17th-century Italy hardly wrote any music or parts specifically for the recorder. Several title pages mention different instruments to choose from, but the recorder (flauto) is not one of them. Even in later times, its role is limited. I am unhappy with the combination of recorder and violin in Vivaldi's Sonata in d minor; it is notable that in the oeuvre of Vivaldi we don't find any trio sonatas for this combination. An additional problem is that the recorder's dynamic capabilities are very limited. It seems to me that the violin would have been a better option in all the pieces performed here. Staying with the historical side of the matter: the use of a cello in this repertoire is unjustified. The (baroque) cello as we know it today made its appearance in the last decades of the 17th century. Before that the common string bass was a viola da gamba or a bass violin.

For these reasons I can't unequivocally recommend this disc, which is a big shame, given the importance of the repertoire and the quality of singing and playing. The latter is the reason that those who have a special interest in this repertoire, should investigate it nonetheless.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Myriam Leblanc
Ensemble La Cigale

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