musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Songs for voice and lute from around 1600

[I] Robert DOWLAND (c1591 - 1641) (ed): A Musicall Banquet
Ensemble A Musicall Banquet
Dir: Baltazar Zúñiga
rec: Jan 2018, Bagnoregio (VT), Auditorium Vittorio Taborra
Brilliant Classics - 96241 (© 2021) (48'22")
Liner-notes: E/IT; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

[A Musicall Banquet] anon: Ce penser qui sans fin tirannise ma vie; Go, my flock, go get you hence; O bella più che la stella Diana; Passava Amor, su arco desarmado; Vuestros ojos tienen d'amor no sé qué; Giulio CACCINI (1551-1618): Amarilli mia bella; Dovrò dunque morire; John DOWLAND (1563-1626): In darkness let me dwell; Lady, if you so spite me; Anthony HOLBORNE (c1545-1602): My heavy sprite; Domenico Maria MELLI (1572-after 1633): Se di farmi morire
anon: An Italian ground; Johnny Cock thy Beaver; Paul's steeple; John DOWLAND: Lachrimae Pavan; Diego ORTIZ (c1510-c1576): Recercada II; Recercada VIII

Baltazar Zúñiga, tenor; Rebecca Ferri, recorder, viola da gamba, cello; Francesco Tomasi, lute, guitar; Massimiliano Dragoni, percussion

[II] "Cara mia Cetra - Mit Orpheus in der Unterwelt" (With Orpheus in the underworld)
Jens Hamann, baritone; Thorsten Bleich, lute, theorbo, chitarrone, cittern
rec: August 2017, Tuttlingen-Möhringen, Kreuzkirche
Conditura Records - conrec014 (© 2020) (73'47")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover & track-list

anon: Isle of Rea; Lassie lie near me; Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Donna siam rei di morte; Troppo sotto due stelle alme; Ennemond GAULTIER (1575-1651): Prélude; Sigismondo D'INDIA (1582-1629): Cara mia cetra andianne; Lamento d'Orfeo; Robert JOHNSON (1583-1633): As I walked forth; Care-charming sleep; Have you seen the bright lily grow?; Orpheus I am; Tell me, dearest, what is love?; Giovanni Girolamo KAPSPERGER (?-1651): Passacaglia in la; Passacaglia in re; Stefano LANDI (1590-1655): La morte de Orfeo (Gioite al mio natal); William LAWES (1602-1645): He that will not love must be my scholar; I burn; I'm sick of love; Oft have I sworn I'd love no more; White though ye be, yet, lilies, know; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): L'Orfeo (Rosa del ciel); Thomas MORLEY (1557/58-1602): I saw my lady weeping; It was a lover and his lass

One voice and one instrument - that was the main form of (secular) music making in the western world for many centuries. During the Middle Ages trouvères and troubadours sang their own songs, accompanying themselves on a plucked or strung instrument. The Renaissance, which aimed to revive the musical practices of Greek antiquity, hailed this as the ideal and Orpheus as its symbol. The Camerata Fiorentina and the representatives of the seconda pratica embraced this ideal as well. No wonder that large numbers of solo songs were written across Europe during the 16th century. This practice continued in the 17th century, but the roles of singer and accompanist were increasingly divided over several people, and composers followed different paths with regard to style. The two discs under review here document this development. The songs included in the two programmes are largely from the same time - the first half of the 17th century - but represent two different styles.

The collection of songs that Robert Dowland, the son of the famous lutenist John, published in 1610, at the age of just nineteen, was remarkable in that it, apart from pieces by English composers, included songs by composers from France, Italy and Spain. English composers and English music lovers from around 1600 were certainly interested in what was going on at the Italian music scene. John Dowland, for instance, admired his colleague Luca Marenzio, who was also represented in a collection of Italian madrigals, translated into English, published under the title of Musica Transalpina in 1588. However, these madrigals were written in the stile antico, which was the dominant compositional style in England until the middle of the 17th century. In comparison, the Italian songs in Robert's Dowland's A Musicall Banquet were written for solo voice and basso continuo, and as such products of the stile nuovo, one of whose first representatives was Giulio Caccini. His most famous song, Amarilli mia bella, was also included in the collection, alongside his Dovrò dunque morire. Three other songs in Italian were included, two of them anonymous, and one by the amateur composer Domenico Maria Megli.

The Musical Banquet was intended for the English market, and especially for amateur performers. Obviously, they were not acquainted with the basso continuo practice, and therefore Robert Dowland intabulated that part for the lute. Such adaptations were not needed for the Spanish and French songs, which were written to be accompanied by a plucked instrument. In that respect they were close to the English lute song. The French songs belonged among a genre that was very popuar during the 17th century, the air de cour. Both often also allowed for different kinds of performance: not only with voice and lute, sometimes with the addition of a viola da gamba, but also by an ensemble. The three French songs are attributed to Pierre Guédron, one of the main composers of airs de cour, in the recording by Nigel Rogers (EMI, 1977), but are listed as anonymous at the Petrucci Music Library and also at the Brilliant Classics disc. The three Spanish songs are also anonymous.

The title of this disc may suggest that we get here a complete recording of The Musicall Banquet. That is not the case. The collection includes twenty songs, preceded by a lute piece by John Dowland, Sir Robert Sidney His Galliard. He was Robert's godfather, to whom the collection was dedicated. The Brilliant Classics disc offers eleven songs. In addition we get some instrumental pieces of the same time. Aspects of performance practice are questionable, to say the least. First, this collection was intended for the English market. English music lovers, and certainly the amateurs among them, were undoubtedly unaware of Italian performance practice. From that angle, the use of Italian ornamentation, for instance the trillo, is highly questionable. Second, these songs link up with an English tradition of singing songs to an accompaniment of a plucked instrument, sometimes with an added bass viol. Here the recorder participates in several songs, either inserting interludes between stanzas, or playing colla voce. I can't see any justification for this. There is even less reason to add percussion. Its participation is completely alien to the very genre of the lute song, also considering that such songs were intended for domestic performance. Just as odd is the participation of a cello, as that instrument was not known at the time. Baltazar Zúñiga has a vast experience in early music, according to his biography (although I can't remember having ever heard him), but I am not impressed by his performances. I would have preferred a firmer way of singing. He consistently sounds as if he does not feel at home in the repertoire. His English pronunciation is certainly not perfect. One sometimes gets the impression that he uses historical pronunciation (hence the 'American' r), but that is not the case, as his pronunciation of the French songs shows. The tempo of some songs is quite slow. In the case of Holborne's My heavy sprite, this goes at the cost of the rhythm.

Overall, this disc is rather disappointing. The booklet includes the lyrics, but those in Italian, French and Spanish have not been translated.

The second disc refers to the figure of Orpheus in its subtitle. He was a mythical figure who was the symbol of the power of music. He and his lyre were emblematic of what was considered the supreme form of vocal music: a voice and an instrument. Although only a few items in the programme are specifically devoted to Orpheus, the pieces recorded by Jens Hamann and Thorsten Bleich have in common that they focus on the expression of words in music. That is to be expected in the pieces that are the products of the seconda pratica, such as the extracts from Monteverdi's L'Orfeo and Stefano Landi's La morte d'Orfeo, as well as the pieces by Frescobaldi and d'India. However, the English songs are also mostly of a special kind, as several of them were originally written to be performed as part of pieces for the stage, such as masques. It lends them a more dramatic character than the many songs that were written for domestic performance of amateurs in the first place. That especially goes for the songs by Robert Johnson and those by William Lawes. English songs were usually strophic, but several of those included here are through-composed, such as Lawes' I'm sick of love and Johnson's Care-charming sleep.

As one may expect, Italian songs of the seconda pratica are more adventurous and experimental in their treatment of harmony. After all, dissonances and chromaticism were used in the interest of text illustration and the communication of affetti. The pieces included here bear witness to that. However, English composers knew a thing or two about harmony and its use for expressive reasons. How effective is the use of chromaticism in Morley's I saw my lady weeping. And there is no lack of expression in Johnson's Have you seen the bright lily grow.

One difference between most of the English songs and the Italian items is the latter's declamatory nature. The extracts from the operas and certainly also d'India's Lamento d'Orfeo are prime exponents of that feature of Italian vocal music of the early 17th century. They demonstrate the ideals of Giulio Caccini: the music should be the servant of the text.

Obviously, a mixture of English and Italian songs, with all their similarities and differences, is quite a challenge to performers. Jens Hamann, who has participated in quite some recordings of baroque repertoire, does meet that challenge convincingly. In this repertoire, one is probably more acquainted with higher voices. The listener may need some time to get used to a lower voice in these songs, but Hamann has a very nice voice, which is perfectly suited to this repertoire. The most light-weight piece in the programme is Morley's It was a lover and his lass, and this is the least-convincing part of the programme. The more expressive items come off far better, and Hamann's declamatory skills are impressive. D'India's Lamento d'Orfeo ends this disc and is also one of its highlights. The emotions of Orpheus are explored to the full and are emphatically communicated.

Thorsten Bleich is the ideal partner, playing on four different plucked instruments. He does give excellent support and plays some solo pieces, which perfectly fit into the programme. Kapsperger's Passacaglia in re is the ideal introduction to D'India's Lamento d'Orfeo.

Because of the repertoire - part of which is little known - and the performances, this is a compelling disc which lovers of early 17th-century music should not miss.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Jens Hamann

CD Reviews