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"L'Arte di diminuire"

L'Estro d'Orfeo
Dir: Leonor de Lera

rec: Oct 24 - 27, 2019, Lonigo (I), Villa San Fermo
Challenge Classics - CC72843 (© 2020) (69'13")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Girolamo DALLA CASA (?-1601): Petit Jacquet da sonar con la Viola Bastarda; Petite fleur coincte; Giovanni Girolamo KAPSPERGER (c1580-1651): Folia; Leonor DE LERA: Descendi in hortum meum di Palestrina passeggiato; Diminuzioni sopra Usurpator tiranno di Giovanni Felice Sances; Pulchra es amica mea di Palestrina; Tarantella del Gargano diminuita; Biagio MARINI (1594-163): Romanesca per violino solo e basso se piace; Javier NÚÑEZ: O felici occhi miei di Arcadelt; Rodney PRADA: Io canterei d'amor di Cipriano per suonar alla bastarda; Franncesco ROGNONI TAEGGIO (c1585-c1624): Vestiva i colli. Modo difficile per suonar alla baastarda; Salomone ROSSI (1570-c1630): Sonata V sopra un'Aria francese; Bartolomeo DE SELMA Y SALAVERDE (fl 1613-1638): Vestiva i colli passeggiato a doi. Basso e soprano; Marco UCCELLINI (1603-1680): Aria V sopra La Bergamasca; Aria XIV a doi violini sopra La mia pedrina

Leonor de Lera, Ignacio Ramal, violin; Rodney Prada, viola da gamba, viola bastarda; Josep María Martí, theorbo, guitar; Javier Núñez, harpsichord, organ

The art of ornamentation is one of the basic features of pre-romantic music. It was one of the issues which made a fundamental difference between historical and traditional performance practice in the early days of the revival of early music. The importance of ornamentation manifests itself in the many treatises on this subject which were published from the late 16th century until well into the 18th century. In addition, it was an important subject in treatises of a more general content.

From the mid-16th to the mid-17th century a special kind of ornamentation was particularly popular. It has found its way in a genre known as 'diminutions', in English also called 'divisions' and in Italian 'passaggi'. One of the writers on this subject was Silvestro Ganassi (1492-1550), who stated: "Diminution is nothing other than the variation of a naturally bare and simple sequence of notes". The playing of diminutions - and ornamentation in general - was part of the art of improvisation. However, this art needed to be learned, and this explains the many treatises. The instructions were illuminated by melodic formulas to which several diminutions were added, which readers could study and apply to music of their own choice. Most treatises also included complete sets of diminutions on popular tunes or pre-existing compositions, such as madrigals and motets.

The present disc demonstrates three kinds of diminutions. The most common kind was the one in which the subject was the upper voice of a vocal piece. The longer notes of such a part were broken up into smaller and faster ones, moving around the original line. This kind of diminutions could be played on any instrument, such as the violin, the recorder, the cornett or a plucked or keyboard instrument. A written-out example is Petite fleur coincte by Girolamo Dalla Casa. However, a particular interesting aspect of this recording is that most of such diminutions are created by the performers. Leonora de Lera plays diminutions on Palestrina's motet Pulchra es amica mea. Palestrina's motets and madrigals were often the subject of such diminutions in the early 17th century, reflecting the composer's status at the time. Other members of the ensemble have done the same.

One of them is Rodney Prada, who took the madrigal Io canterei d'amor by Cipriano de Rore. And that brings us to a different kind of diminutions, known as viola bastarda, which refers both to an instrument - a kind of viola da gamba, whose size is between a tenor and a bass viol - and a style of playing. Diminutions alla bastarda don't confine themselves to the upper part of a piece, but take all the voices into account, moving upwards and downwards. It is not surprising that in such pieces the upper voice - the one which makes the listener best recognize a piece - is hardly discernible. Comparable with this is the harpsichord version of Jacques Arcadelt's madrigal O felici occhi miei, which Javier Núñez has turned into a keyboard piece in Neapolitan style.

The third kind of diminutions take melodic formulae or bass patterns which were very popular at the time, as their subject. One of such formulae is the Romanesca, here performed with diminutions by Biagio Marini. Another extremely popular pattern was that of the Folia, originally a Portuguese dance, which was used as a subject of variations until the late 18th century. Here we hear what the theorbo virtuoso Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger made of it.

Diminutions were usually played by one instrument. Interestingly, the programme includes some specimens of diminutions for several instruments. One of these is the Aria XIV a doi violini sopra La mia pedrina by Marco Uccellini. Leonora de Lera has also written diminutions for three instruments, on Descendi in hortum meum, another motet by Palestrina. "Careful consideration was taken when writing this piece, following the rules of embellishing in consort. Diminutions are somewhat simpler than in pieces written for a single instrument and each line is embellished in turns (with the exception of small simultaneous interventions from other voices here and there as a form of dialogue between the instruments), thus following the advice that only one singer or player at a time should embellish their line so the passage can be distinctly heard and differentiated from the other voices."

Obviously, such diminutions are harder to improvise than those in which a player is on his own. Even so, the diminutions by members of the ensemble here are certainly not improvised during the recording process, but written out beforehand. That is not a matter of criticism: the whole process of recording music is at odds with both the ornamentation and improvisation practice, as something is fixed which is basically not intended to be fixed. That is one of the inevitable 'inauthentic' aspects of historical performance practice and today's music life.

This disc deserves the attention of all lovers of early music, not only because of the fine performances of the written-out pieces, but also - and even more so - because the performers have applied the instructions of the various treatises on ornamentation and diminution in music of their own choice. They have transported themselves to the glorious days of diminutions, and invite the listener to join them. That's an invitation one should not turn down.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

L'Estro d'Orfeo

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