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Bianca Maria MEDA (1661? - 1732/33): "Lacrime Amare - Motets"

Cappella Artemisia
Dir: Candace Smith

rec: Sept 12 - 15, 2017, Bologna, S. Cristina della Fondazza
Brilliant Classics - 95736 (© 2018) (79'04")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Anime belle; In foco ardentissime; Jesu mi clementissime; No non tentate; O lacrime amare; O quante contra me; Spirate vos zeffiri; Vibrate fulmina; Volo vivere

Source: Mottetti a 1. 2. 3. e 4. voci, con violini, e senza, 1691

Elena Bertuzzi, Elena Biscuola, Arianna Lanci, Pamela Lucciarini, Candace Smith, Sara Tommasini, Patrizia Vaccari, Silvia Vajente, Barbara Zanicelli, voice; Davide Monti, Elisa Bestetti, violin; Bettina Hoffmann, cello; Elena Bianchi, dulcian; Maria Christina Cleary, harp; Fabio Merlante, theorbo, guitar; Maria Luisa Baldassari, harpsichord; Miranda Aureli, harpsichord, organ

Only a few female composers from before the 19th century are known. The best-known names are those of Hildegard of Bingen, Barbara Strozzi and Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. It is largely due to the research and recordings of ensembles like the Cappella Artemisia that others, especially from 17th-century Italy, have been added to the still modest list of female composers.

Almost all of them were nuns, and one may assume that they came from the upper echelons of society. Considering the many limitations imposed on girls and women at the time, the entrance into a convent offered them a unique opportunity to develop intellectually and artistically. This explains why at several women's convents music was performed at a high level. Many nuns were skilled in singing or the playing of instruments. In addition, some nuns developed their compositional abilities, and one of these was Bianca Maria Meda, who lived at the Benedictine convent San Martino del Leano in Pavia. It had been founded in 1570, and was the result of the merger of two smaller monasteries. The number of inhabitants was not large: at the time of Meda probably around 40.

Bianca Maria was not the only member of the Meda family to enter the convent. Two years or so before her sister had entered the monastery, and later four further members of the Meda family did so too. According to the liner-notes, there was an "unbroken Meda presence in the monastery from 1676 to 1792". In 1691 the Bolognese publisher Pier Maria Monti printed a collection of twelve motets by Bianca Maria Meda, which is the only edition from her pen that has come down to us. It confirms a comment by an abbess from 1733 that both plainchant and polyphonic music was performed at the convent.

The scoring of the motets varies from one to four voices and basso continuo, sometimes with two additional violins. It is notable that the motets are "sacred but not liturgical', as Candace Smith states in her liner-notes. "The grammatical structure, spelling and lexicon of their texts strongly reflect the Italian language and betray a familiarity with, rather than a mastery of, Latin. The most common error is the use of Italian endings and spellings, effectively replacing Latin words with their equivalent in Italian." Be this as it may, I wonder whether this excludes their use in the liturgy in the convent. It may have prevented them being used in the liturgy outside the convent. The fact that these motets were printed indicates that they were intended for general use. This also explains why they include parts for tenor and bass. Pieces exclusively for higher voices were less attractive to chapels and churches with tenors and basses in their ranks.

Obviously this raises the question how these low parts were performed in a women's convent. This is the same question scholars and performers discuss with regard to the performance practice at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. It has been suggested - and practised in some recordings - that these parts were sung by women who were able to reach very low notes. A more common practice these days is the upward transposition of the low parts. That is how they are performed here. "When the soprano part is not particularly high, the entire piece might be transposed upward, and this was definitely a practice in earlier convent repertoire. Here, however, the soprano parts consistently go up to g'' and a'', making such a transposition impractical. The transposition of bass parts up an octave to be sung by an alto, however, was well documented and has been consistently followed on this recording. Indeed, Meda may have had such a transposition in mind, since she invariably shied away from pairing the bass voice with the tenor to avoid awkward voice-crossing."

In other respects the performance practice in this recording is debatable. That particularly concerns the number of singers and players involved. "In order to bring out the greatest variety among these pieces, we have employed a large ensemble of 9 voices, offering both diverse vocal timbres in the solos and allowing for the doubling, and even tripling of voices (...)". Firstly, I don't see the need for such variety. These motets differ in scoring and are good enough in themselves not to need any tricks to make them more interesting. Secondly, I don't know how music was performed in Italian convents at the time, and the liner-notes don't discuss this issue. Probably little is known about it anyway. However, on the basis of what is known about performance practice in the 17th century in general, a doubling of voices in pieces for less than four voices seems rather unlikely. The line-up of the basso continuo group is also questionable. "[We] have sought a great variety of timbres through a large basso continuo group consisting of organ and harpsichord (both together and separately), harp, dulcian, cello, theorbo and guitar." Again, I wonder whether so many instruments were participating in performances of sacred music at the convents at the time. The participation of a guitar seems particularly debatable.

There can be little doubt about the musical skills of the inhabitants of the San Martino del Leano convent. The vocal and instrumental parts are technically demanding, and the former have a wide range. The structure of the motets is largely the same. They consist of various sections in contrasting scorings, metres and keys. The longer sections are mostly for a solo voice and have a (written-out) dacapo. This shows the influence of contemporary opera. Most motets end with an Alleluia.

One can only be grateful that these motets are now available on disc. That makes the debatable decisions with regard to the line-up all the more regrettable. Moreover, the performances are not entirely satisfying. Some pieces come off rather well, but others are disappointing. Some of the singers are not more than average and some use too much vibrato, for instance Elena Biscuola in Volo vivere (originally intended for bass solo). The decision to double the voices turns out to have a negative effect on the overall result: the voices don't blend very well and this has a damaging effect on the ensembles.

Considering the quality and the character of these motets, I recommend this disc, although not unreservedly.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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