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"Memento Mori"

Les Cris de Paris
Dir: Geoffrey Jourdain

rec: July 29 - August 1, 2012, Paris, Église Saint-Pierre
Aparté - AP059 (© 2012) (63'41")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

anon: Lamento de la Maddalenaa; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): Chi vol che m'innamorati [1]; Luigi ROSSI (?) (c1597-1653): Disperar di se stesso; O Cecità del misero mortale

Source: [1] Claudio Monteverdi, Selva morale e spirituale, 1640

Edwige Parata, Karen Vourc'hb, soprano; Manuel Nuñez Camelinoc, Emiliano Gonzalez Torod, tenor; Lisandro Abadie, basse; Yuki Koike, Catherine Ambach, violin; Martin Bauer, viola da gamba; Jérôme Huille, lirone, cello; Bérengère Sardin, harp; Marco Horvat, theorbo, guitar; Simon-Pierre Bestion de Camboulas, harpsichord; Sébastien Daucé, organ

In the 1630s and 1640s Rome buzzed with musical activity. Music was played everywhere, in churches large and small, chapels and so-called 'oratorios'. The main purpose was not to entertain the people. We are in the middle of the Counter Reformation here. This was a movement across the continent through which the Roman Catholic Church tried to regain some of the ground it had lost during the schism of the 16th century. In order to win over the hearts and minds of the people almost every possible means was depolyed. Music which was part of everyday life anyway, was considered an ideal method of imprinting the doctrines of the church.

The music which is performed on the present disc, is part of the programme of the Counter Reformation. Three of the four pieces fall into the category of morality play: they have a moral message which is summed up in the closing lines. The text is in the vernacular, which guarantees that the language doesn't stand in the way of common people understanding the message. Stylistically they are very much like the secular music of the time. They are dramatic and full of contrast, and the emotions of the text - the affetti - are expressed through musical means developed in the early decades of the century. This way the text could reach the hearts and minds of the people and move them to good behaviour and introspection. One could say that this is secular music with a moral message.

The two largest pieces have come down to us anonymously. However, for various reasons they are generally attributed to Luigi Rossi, who was especially famous for his secular cantatas. If this attribution is correct it only confirms the close connection between these moral cantatas and secular music.

The programme opens and closes with two pieces which are comparable in regard to the moral message. Chi vol che m'innamorati is from the Selva morale e spirituale, the last collection Claudio Monteverdi published. It comprises three stanzas which would normally strongly restrict the composer's opportunities to make use of affetti. However, the author has structured the stanzas in such a way that a good composer could make the music to fit all of them. The content of the four last lines is comparable. The closing lines of the first stanza say: "Today we laugh, then tomorrow we weep". In the second stanza these lines express the same thought: "Today we are creatures of light, tomorrow we are but shadows". The last lines of the third stanza goes a step further and sums up the message of the piece: "Today we are born, then tomorrow we die". This piece reflects the motifs of vanitas and memento mori which were such an important part in 17th-century thinking and are frequently depicted in paintings.

The same motifs dominate the cantata O Cecità del misero mortale, in English: "Oh, the blindness of wretched mortal man". The heart is the second section: "See yourself for once for what you are, you who live so frantically. Look not at what you are now, look at your fame when you are in the grave! Dissolved, undone, it turns to dust, vanishes into a shade, nor will you ever recover it once it is taken away." Passages for solo voice are alternated with duets and trios or tutti episodes. The scoring is always at the service of optimum communication of the message. To that end the composer uses the musical means of his time quite effectively. The piece ends quite abrupt, eloquently illustrating the moral message: "[Everlasting] silence awaits you at the end".

Disperar di se stesso has the same structure. Here human sinfulness is the central subject. "I feel so downcast by the leaden weight of my sins that I know not how I could, of myself, find the way to do better". The title indicates the solution: "Despair of himself is hope for the wicked". The audience is encouraged to show sorrow over its sins, especially through prayer. "To a proud complaint the Lord is deaf, but he will not refuse a humble prayer". The piece ends with the moral: "Let the sinner mourn, and love divine cause tears to pour from his eyes: a single tear extinguishes hellfire".

The fourth piece in the programme is again anonymous, and as the title suggests it is an arrangement of the famous Lamento d'Arianna from Monteverdi's opera Arianna which is now lost. This piece was already famous in the composer's own time, and he himself made an arrangement as a madrigal for five voices. He also turned it into a sacred work: Il pianto della Madonna was also included in the Selva morale e spirituale. The piece on the present disc begins with the same text as Monteverdi's original lamento: "Lasciatemi morire". It is also for solo voice and basso continuo.

We don't hear this work in the form in which it has been preserved. "Our version of the Lamento is based on different copies of Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna, including the one signed by Luigi Rossi (...) and the 5-part madrigal included in the Sesto Libro (1614), a polyphonic version into which we have taken the liberty of incorporating here and there counterpoints to the violins and the viola da gamba". This is regrettable: it would have been much better to perform this piece as it was found. The participation of instruments contributes nothing useful; they rather detract from the text, and so does the harpsichord which is too prominent in the closing episode.

That is especially regrettable as the singers pay much attention to the text and the delivery is excellent. The dramatic character of this repertoire and the contrasts in text and music come off very well. It is a shame the singers use more vibrato than is historically justifiable. It damages the persuasiveness of these performances. The third voice in the five-part pieces is usually sung by an alto, but here it is given to the high tenor Manuel Nuñez Camelino. There are good reasons for that, but unfortunately he has some trouble with the tessitura of his part. Some high notes sound stressed and his voice begins to flutter.

Even so, this is a fine disc with enthralling repertoire and overall good and expressive performances.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Les Cris de Paris

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