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Giulio CACCINI (1551-1618): Le Nuove Musiche

[I] "Amarilli - Le Nuove Musiche 1601"
rec: June 10 - 12, 2019, Sondrio, Chiesa di San Bartolomeo
Brilliant Classics - 96254a (© 2021) (69'02")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Roberto Balconi, tenor; Giangiacomo Pinardi, theorbo; Marco Montanelli, harpsichord

[II] "Le Nuove Musiche"
Riccardo Pisani, tenor
Ricercare Antico
Dir: Francesco Tomasi
rec: Feb 15 - 18, 2018, Rome, Chiesa di San Gregorio dei Muratori
Brilliant Classics - 95794b (© 2019) (66'41")
Liner-notes: E/IT; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Paolo Perrone, violin; Matteo Coticoni, violone; Flora Papadopoulos, harp; Giovanni Bellini, archlute, theorbo; Francesco Tomasi, theorbo, guitar

Giulio CACCINI: A quei sospiri ardentib [2]; Al fonte, al pratob [2]; Amarilli mia bellaab [1]; Amor ch'attendib [2]; Amor, io partoab [1]; Ard'il mio petto miseroa [1]; Ardi, cor mioa [1]; Aur'amorosab [2]; Belle rose porporinea [1]; Dalla porta d'Orienteb [2]; Dolcissimo sospiroab [1]; Dovrò dunque morireab [1]; Fere selvaggiea [1]; Filli, mirando il cieloa [1]; Fillide miaa [1]; Fortunato augellinoa [1]; Io parto, amati lumia [1]; Movetevi a pietàa [1]; Non ha'l ciel cotanti lumib [2]; Non più guerra, pietate! [1]; Perfidissimo voltoa [1]; Occh'immortalia [1]; Odi Euterpe il dolce cantoab [1]; Queste lagrim'amarea [1]; Sfogava con le stellea [1]; Tu ch'ai le penneb [2]; Udite, udite amantiab [1]; Vedrò 'l mio solab [1]; Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Toccata per spinettina e violinob; Stefano LANDI (c1581-1649): Canzona a 3 detta L'Alessandrinab; Philippo NICOLETTI (c1554-1634): Canzona La Capricciosettab; Canzona La Trictellab

Sources: Giulio Caccini, [1] Le nuove musiche, 1602; [2] Nuove musiche e nuova maniera di sciverle, 1614


Some musical publications have become so famous that they appear in every book on music history. One of them is the collection of songs that Giulio Caccini published in 1601 under the title of Le Nuove Musiche. The title is just as ambitious as was the composer, who claimed to have written songs that were entirely new. That was a little exaggerated: the singing of a solo voice to an accompaniment of just one instrument was known before. One of the purposes of Caccini was to promote the text to the most important part in a piece of music as well as the element of expression. The music was merely the servant of the text and the affetti it was to communicate.

Given the importance of this edition, there seem to be not that many complete recordings. Single items have been and are performed and recorded frequently, and that goes in particular for Amarilli mia bella, which is a real evergreen. It became quickly famous after the publication of the collection, as the many arrangements by other composers show. Unfortunately, many other songs are far lesser known, and the instructions of the composer in the preface are not that often studied and practised. That is different here. Roberto Balconi has been active as an alto both in solo roles and in ensembles, but as an acid reflux made him uncertain of his falsetto voice, he wanted to practise singing in the tenor range, and turned to Caccini. The composer wrote his songs for a soprano or tenor, and wanted them to be sung "in a full, natural voice, avoiding falsetto" from which "no nobility of good singing can arise". Therefore he never had paid attention to the collection. What we get here are all the madrigals and arias; a few pieces from the opera Il rapimento di Cefalo are omitted.

In his liner-notes, Balconi discusses the instructions with regard to performance practice from Caccini's own pen, illustrated with many quotations from the preface. One suspects that many performers, in particular those who select only one or a few songs, don't bother to look at these things. That explains why Balconi's performances are often quite different from what can be heard in such recordings.

An important aspect is the treatment of rhythm, which is subservient to the text. Caccini here refers to Plato, "who believed that music is nothing other than speech, and rhythm, and sound last of all". This is the guiding principle of music of the baroque era - and even beyond - as Nikolaus Harnoncourt argued in his famous book Music as speech. The way rhythm is used is different in the madrigals on the one hand and the arias on the other. The former are through-composed, and offer the performer the opportunity to follow the rhythm of the text rather than that of the music, whereas the arias are strophic and limit his freedom. Caccini thought that only if the text is in the centre, the music can "enter the minds of others and have the wonderful effects" that philosophers, such as Plato, described. This laid the foundation for another basic element of the baroque style: the importance of affetti.

In order to have a maximum effect, the music had to serve the text. The composer had to aim at the writing of "more or less expressive notes, depending on the sentiment of the words". On the one hand, Caccini wanted to abandon the strict rules of counterpoint, which too much limited the possibilities of connecting text and music. On the other hand, he warned for excessive ornamentation, such as in the diminutions (passaggi) that were so popular in his time. He considered the addition of an overload of ornaments "an easy way of amazing and beguiling unwary listeners", as Balconi summarizes. Caccini was not opposed to ornamentation as such, but the ornaments he wanted to hear were mostly already written out in the songs as he had published them.

The expression of affetti - human emotions - has everything to do with volume. People start to speak louder or even to scream when they are excited, happy or rather afraid. Dynamic is an important element in music, and that goes especially for the songs by Caccini and the music written in that style, generally known as 'monody'. He explained that "esclamazione (...) is the most important way of moving the affections". Esclamazione means "giving voice to a note with a diminuendo immediately thereafter". "More specifically, the 'esclamazione' represents a decrease in dynamic - how quickly it decreases and how accented the attack is will vary according to the quality and intensity of the feeling one wishes to express" (Balconi). Another dynamic tool is the messa di voce, which means increasing and then decreasing the volume.

Next Balconi discusses various sorts of ornamentation, such as the trillo - a repetition of a single note (the most famous example is the 'Sanctus' passage in the concerto Duo Seraphim in Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610) - and the gruppo, two alternating notes, comparable with the modern trill. There are also some kinds of diminutions which allow for rhythmic and melodic variety, while avoiding the excesses of instrumental passaggi.

All these features only make sense when the singer uses them judiciously, and that is only possible by singers "who understand the concepts and feelings of the words", as only they "can distinguish where their use is more or less necessary, to avoid falling into the trap of using them indiscriminately, and without judgement".

As one can see, Balconi has not taken the task of recording Caccini's songs lightly. He has done his homework, and that has paid off in the musical result. He has a nice voice, and the switch from falsetto to his chest register seems to have borne fruit, as he entirely convinces with his interpretations as a tenor. The differences between the madrigals and the arias come off well, but without any exaggeration, as he certainly takes some liberties in the strophic items. The ornamentation is well judged, and the treatment of dynamics is effective. It is a shame that the booklet omits translations of the songs, but even without them, these songs make a lasting impression. This recording attests to the value of studying contemporary sources, including what the composer himself has to say, and of taking that seriously. The composer always knows best how his music should be performed.

I hope to hear more from Balconi in this kind of repertoire.

At first sight, one may wonder why Brilliant Classics would release two discs with the same repertoire within a relatively short space of time. The second disc has indeed some overlap with the first: seven songs appear on both; they are taken from the collection of songs that Caccini published in 1602. However, Riccardo Pisani also selected seven songs from the second book, which came from the press in 1614. Moreover, as one can see in the track-list, the programme is extended with some instrumental items. And then the list of performers indicates that the line-up in the songs is somewhat different as well.

To start with the latter: in some songs the violin plays ritornellos, mostly instrumental versions - usually with diminutions - of the vocal line. This issue is not discussed in the liner-notes, but Roberto Balconi, in the booklet to his recording, refers to "the option of using 'multiple stringed instruments' in the arias". He did not use this option, but the participation of a violin in Riccardo Pisani's recording seems historically justified. However, the use of a battery of instruments in the basso continuo, and in particular of a string bass, seems rather questionable. Balconi also mentions that "the composer recommends playing the basso continuo part solely on the chitarrone (a large bass lute), 'the most appropriate instrument for accompanying the voice, and particularly the tenor voice'". This makes much sense as Caccini "was writing for a 'musico' (singer-musician) who would accompany himself or herself, as was the norm in the era and as he himself could do - he was a singer and theorbo player as well as a composer".

The participation of instruments allows for the inclusion of several instrumental pieces, three of which appear on disc here for the first time. One of the composers is Filippo Nicoletti, who may be an unknown quantity to most music lovers. He was from Ferrara and has written almost exclusively vocal works. New Grove refers to one instrumental canzona, but apparently there is more, as here we get two pieces.

As interesting they may be and as enjoyable their appearance on this disc, the fourteen songs by Caccini are the main interest of this recording. Inevitable one is inclined to compare the performances by Balconi and Pisani. I have not compared all seven songs, but only a few, and these revealed the three main differences: Balconi's interpretation is more declamatory (Pisani's singing is more legato) and he adds more ornamentation. Moreover, his performances include stronger dynamic differences. From this one may conclude that I prefer Balconi's approach to this repertoire, which in my view does more justice to Caccini's ideals. That does not take anything away from my appreciation of what Pisani and his colleagues have to offer. The tempi seem generally a little slower than in Balconi's recording, and I also wonder why in Amor ch'attendi the third stanza, 'Quel cor superbo', is sung so slowly.

The instrumental playing is very fine, and as this disc includes seven songs that are not on Balconi's disc, this recording may be considered a useful sequel to the latter's.

The lyrics and their English translations for Pisani's disc can be downloaded from the Brilliant Classics site, but they have made such a mess of it that it is of little use.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Riccardo Pisani
Ricercare Antico

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