musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Natale in Italia"

Ensemble La Fenice
Dir: Jean Tubéry

rec: Dec 19 - 23, 2014, Saligny, Église Saint-Laurent
Ars Produktion - ARS 38 181 (© 2015) (54'04")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: F; translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance]
[Antiphonae in nativitate Domini ad Laudes et per Horas]
Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Capriccio pastorale [2]; plainchant: Quem vidistis pastores; Giovanni Battista BOVICELLI (c1550-c1597): Angelus ad pastores ait [1]; plainchant: Facta est cum Angelo; Urban LOTH (c1580-1636): Gloria in excelsis Deo [3]; Giovanni Battista FONTANA (c1589-1630): Sonata XIII (exc) [6]; plainchant: Parvulus filius hodie natus est
[Per l'ottava di Natale]
Bonifazio GRAZIANI (1604-1664): Venite pastores, a voce sola; Christoph BERNHARD (1628-1692): Currite pastores; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c1620/23-1680): Sonata pastorale a 3; anon (15th C): Puer nobis nascitur, cantilena; Jacob VAN EYCK (1589/90-1657): Puer nobis [7]; Alessandro GRANDI (1586-1630): Sinfonia a 3; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): Christe redemptor omnium (SV 280) [5]; Biagio MARINI (1594-1663): Con le stelle in ciel [4]; Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605-1674): Salve puellule

Sources: [1] Giovanni Battista Bovicelli, Regole, passaggi di musica, madrigali et motetti passeggiati, 1594; [2] Girolamo Frescobaldi, Toccate e partite d'intavolatura, libro I, 1615; [3] Urban Loth, Musica melica, 1616; [4] Biagio Marini, Scherzi e canzonette, op. 5, 1622; [5] Claudio Monteverdi, Selva morale e spirituale, 1640/41; [6] Giovanni Battista Fontana, Sonate a 1.2.3 ..., 1641; [7] Jacob van Eyck, Der Fluyten Lust-hof, II, 1646

Dagmar Saskova, soprano; Jan Van Elsacker, tenor; Nicolas Achten, baritone, harp, theorbo, guitar; Philippe Grisvard, bass, harpsichord, organ; Jean Tubéry, recorder, cornett, cornetto muto; Stéphanie Pfister, violin; Lucas Peres, basso di viola

Christmas being the most popular feast in the ecclesiastical calender, certainly since the Middle Ages, has resulted in a large repertoire of music in which sacred and secular elements are mixed. Especially many carols - if we use this as a general term for non-liturgical pieces connected to the Christian faith - show the influence of folk religion. The present programme of music from 17th century Italy - and some pieces from above the Alps which show the influence of the Italian style - includes various examples.

One the one hand we hear some liturgical chants, in particular in the first section: Quem vidistis pastores, Facta est cum Angelo and Parvulus filius hodie natus est. These are linked to the pieces which follow or precede them. In the case of Facta est the second line - "gloria in excelsis Deo" - is omitted as the next piece, Gloria in excelsis Deo which follows almost attacca, opens with the same words. The composer, Urban Loth, is an early example of a German composer who embraced the Italian monodic style. This sacred concerto is followed by the Sonata XIII by Giovanni Battista Fontana which interestingly opens with the refrain from Loth's concerto. This indicates that he must have known the collection which includes this piece and which was published in Passau in 1616, unless both have used an earlier source.

Another example of a connection between instrumental and vocal music is Monteverdi's Christe redemptor omnium which opens with a motif which seems to be derived from the Sinfonia a tre by Alessandro Grandi, for a number of years his colleague at St Mark's in Venice. The liner-notes don't inform us whether Monteverdi has indeed been inspired by Grandi's piece. Monteverdi included his piece in the collection Selva morale e spirituale with the text Deus tuorum militum, but added that this could be replaced by other texts, including the one performed here. "On this recording we present a reconstructed version of the hymn of the Nativity; we are thus reinstating the tradition of the alternatim, i.e. alternating between odd-numbered, sung versets and even-numbered ones that were spoken "with a loud and clearly audible voice" (vocem pronuntietur), as postulated by the Caeremoniale episcoporum of 1600" (Jean Tubéry).

A specimen of the mixture of sacred and secular is Angelus ad pastores ait by Giovanni Battista Bovicelli. This is from his treatise on the composition of passaggi which includes a number of examples from his own pen. This piece has a sacred text but is an arrangement of Cipriano de Rore's famous madrigal Ancor che col partire. Here the passaggi are played on the cornett whereas Dagmar Saskova sings the text. Secular elements are also included in some of the texts. Since the Middle Ages texts have been written about the Virgin Mary which are not fundamentally different from secular love poetry. In the repertoire for Christmas the human aspects of baby Jesus are emphasized, for instance in lullabies. One of the best-known is Tarquinio Merula's Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna. In Con le stelle in ciel Jesus is compared with Cupido. "Chaste lovers, here is Cupid, without wings, without bow and arrows. He lies cold, without light in the humble hay. But if people’s hearts grow warm, then he will be ardent." Not fundamentally different is Salve puellule by Giacomo Carissimi. Here every stanza ends with the word Noe. Interestingly in the first half of the 16th century a number of motets were written in which the word "noe" was repeated a number of times. These seems to have been especially popular under the papacy of Leo X.

The shepherds were the first who heard about the birth of Jesus. That explains that they figure prominently in the repertoire for Christmastide. Bovicelli's Angelus ad pastores ait refers to the liturgical element as far as its text is concerned, the content of the sacred concertos by Graziani and Bernhard is non-biblical. The former was a priest and composer who for a number of years worked in Rome, for instance as maestro di cappella at Il Gesů and the Seminario Romano. Bernhard was a pupil of Schütz who modelled his compositions after those of his teacher. But he also visited Italy twice; his stay in Rome in 1657 is documented. This suggests that he must have become acquainted with the music of Carissimi. Currite pastores is one of his most Italianate pieces.

The role of the shepherds also explains the importance of the pastoral element in Christmas celebrations. That comes to the fore in several pieces of a pastoral character, by Frescobaldi and Schmelzer. The latter piece is hardly known, but fits in a tradition of writing 'imitative' music as we know it from, for instance, Biber. "We have opted for an instrumentation mentioned by Schmelzer himself in the Balletto di spiritelli: the cornetto muto (mute cornett or Stiller Zink) and the violino pifferato, a muted violin imitating the reed sound of the piffero, another instrument of the 'concert pastoral'" (Tubéry). The Capriccio pastorale is included in Frescobaldi's 1615 collection of Toccate e partite d'intavolatura di cimbalo but is here played by organ and basso di viola.

It is one of the examples of 'creative scoring', if I may put it like that. Composers of the baroque era probably didn't bother too much when a violin part was played on the cornett as is the case here, for instance, in Carissimi's Salve puellule and Bernhard's Currite pastores. The question is whether that does a piece any good, and in the case of Bernhard I have my doubts. My main problem is the change of instruments within the piece. At two moments we hear two recorders instead of cornett and violin. That damages this piece's coherence. As the booklet only mentions Jean Tubéry as a player of the recorder I suspect this is the result of overdubbing. In my view that kind of things should be avoided as a recording should remain as closely as possible to a live performance. There is also too much messing-around with Van Eyck's Puer nobis nascitur. It is for recorder solo and it works best by far if played that way.

There may be more liberties taken here which I can't check, partly because some pieces are little known and also because the documentation is rather poor. A mention of the scoring and of the sources from which the pieces are taken would not have been amiss. The Sinfonia a3 by Grandi, for instance, must have been taken from a vocal work, because - at least according to the work-list in New Grove - he didn't compose any instrumental music. Even so, this disc offers much to enjoy. Jean Tubéry has put together a nice and entertaining programme and the fact that several unfamiliar pieces are included deserves much praise, especially considering that so many discs with Christmas music offer more of the same. Dagmar Saskova and Jan Van Elsacker have the right voices for this repertoire and deliver outstanding performances. The instrumental playing is of the same high level.

It is rather odd that the booklet offers only French translations of the lyrics, especially considering that Ars Produktion is a German label. Fortunately English translations are available for download from La Fenice's site.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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