musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"The Contest of Apollo and Pan"

Apollo & Pan

rec: Sept 27 - 29, 2004, Stoke by Nayland, Suffolk, St Mary's
Chandos - CHAN 0756 ( 2009) (73'14")

Giovanni Antonio BERTOLI (1598-1645?): Sonata VII [8]; Giovanni Battista BUONAMENTE (?-1642): Brando [3]; Corrente [3]; Gagliarda [3]; Sinfonia [3]; Dario CASTELLO (1590-1644): Sonata IV [6]; Sonata VII [6]; Sonata VIII [6]; Sonata IX [6]; Sonata X [6]; Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Capriccio Ruggiero [4]; Toccata I [5]; Biagio MARINI (1594-1663): Balletto I [9]; Sonata sopra Fuggi dolente core [9]; Tarquinio MERULA (1594/95-1665): Chiacona [7]; Cipriano DE RORE (1515/16-1565): Ancor che col partire (arr for organ); Salomone ROSSI (1570-c1630): Sonata sopra im aria francese [2]; Giovanni Battista SPADI da Faenza (?-?): Divisions on Ancor che col partire (de Rore); Francesco TURINI (c1589-1656): Sonata E tanto tempo hormai [1]

(Sources: [1] Francesco Turini, Madrigali con alcune sonate, libro I, 1621; [2] Salomone Rossi, Il quarto libro de varie sonate, sinfonie, gagliarde, brandi e corrente, 1622; [3] Giovanni Battista Buonamente, Il quarto libro de varie sonate, sinfonie, gagliarde, corrente, e brandi, 1626; [4] Girolamo Frescobaldi, Il primo libro de capricci, 1626; [5] Girolamo Frescobaldi, Il secondo libro di toccate, 1627/1637; [6] Dario Castello, Sonate concertate in stil moderno ... libro secondo, 1629; [7] Tarquinio Merula, Canzoni overo sonate concertate per chiesa e camera, libro terzo, op. 12, 1637; [8] Giovanni Antonio Bertoli, Compositioni Musicali, 1645; [9] Biagio Marini, Per ogni sorte di strumento musicale diversi generi di sonate, da chiesa, e da camera, op. 22, 1655

Tassilo Ehrhardt, Ben Sansom, violin; Sally Holman, dulcian; Steven Devine, harpsichord, organ

The first decades of the 17th century in Italy were an exciting time: the new stile concertato offered composers all kind of opportunities to experiment with new instrumental colours and compositional forms. The regularity of the canzona, based on vocal models, made way for the sonata, which allowed to explore the individual characteristics of the various instruments. This disc sheds light on one of the main representatives of the new style, Dario Castello. In addition pieces by some of his contemporaries are played. Most are rather well-known, but there is also music by two hardly-known composers, Giovanni Antonio Bertoli and Giovanni Battista Spadi da Faenza.

The title of this disc refers, of course, to the name of the ensemble. In the booklet this name is explained thus: "In Greek mythology, Pan famously challenged Apollo to a musical contest. In the Renaissance, Pan, often pictured holding a wind instrument, represented the wild and untamed, whereas Apollo, normally shown with a stringed instrument, embodied the sublime and refined. These contrasting qualities are united in the ensemble of violin and bassoon which in the seventeenth century, with the development of mixed ensembles, symbolised the opposing forces of Apollo and Pan."

In a way it is a bit disappointing that the music of Castello has been chosen, as his music is frequently played and recorded. In fact, the very first item on this disc, Castello's Sonata X, is probably his most famous piece. The amount of repertoire from this time is huge, and I am sure many far lesser-known compositions could have been chosen. Having said that this disc gives a nice impression of what was going on at the time in Northern Italy.

Very little is known about Castello. Here the tracklist gives the dates of his birth and death, but I don't know where this information comes from: New Grove, for instance, only says that he flowered in Venice in the first half of the 17th century. Here he was the leader of the wind section of the chapel of San Marco. The fact that he wasn't a violinist is reflected by the 29 sonatas he has written, whose string parts are not overly virtuosic. They were published in two collections in 1621 and 1629 respectively. The sonatas on this disc are all from the second book. Considering his position in San Marco it is not surprising that in his sonatas he fully explores the possibilities of the dulcian, often to an astounding effect. The Sonata X contains several highly virtuosic passages for this instrument.

The exploration of the particular qualities of the instruments is not the only feature of the sonata. Unlike the canzona it consists of a sequence of passages which contrast strongly in tempo, metre, scoring and texture. The sonatas here are either for two or three instruments with basso continuo. Sonata IX and Sonata X are for two violins, dulcian and bc, Sonata IV for two violins and bc (the tracklist is incorrect in mentioning the dulcian here) and Sonata VII and Sonata VIII for violin, dulcian and bc. The sonatas for three instruments are in fact very early forms of the trio sonata which was to become one of the most popular forms of instrumental music in the second half of the 17th century. In all sonatas the instruments have some solo passages. The texture also varies: sometimes the instruments imitate each other, sometimes they parallel with each other. A typical feature of Castello's sonatas is the repetition of the last passage of a phrase, like a kind of echo (very popular in theatrical music at the time).

The programme also contains sonatas by some other composers. One of the least-known is Giovanni Antonio Bertoli. He was a bassoonist by profession, and only one collection of instrumental music has been published. It contains nine sonatas for the bassoon (or dulcian, as played here), and the Sonata VII gives a good impression of his great skills as a player. It is a sequence of more introverted and very virtuosic episodes, with frequent leaps and fast passage work. Bertoli should not be confused with Antonio Bertali, who at the same time was working at the imperial court in Vienna. But these two knew each other well, and Bertali was even one of those who encouraged Bertoli to publish his sonatas. So did Francesco Turini, who was organist in Brescia. He is represented here with one of his best-known works, a sonata on a popular tune at the time, also known as 'La Monica'.

Salomone (or Salamone) Rossi was a composer of Jewish origin. He is mainly known for his madrigals and his psalms on Hebrew texts. Here he is represented with a sonata consisting of variations on an unknown tune. These variations are called sonata, and that shows that there is no watershed between the two main genres represented on this disc.

Apart from the sonatas the ensemble plays variations in various forms. For instance divisions on a through-composed piece of music, like those on Cipriano de Rore's most popular madrigal, Ancor che col partire, by Giovanni Battista Spadi da Faenza, a composer about whom nothing is known. Writing divisions over an ostinato bass pattern was another form. The bass pattern could be a chaconne or a passacaglia. The latter is represented here by the above-mentioned sonata by Bertoli, the former by the Chiacona by Tarquinio Merula. The pieces by Turini and Rossi belong to a third category: variations on a melodic line. In the programme notes the Balletto by Biagio Marini is also counted as belonging to this category. Whereas this piece shows some inner coherence, the four dances by Buonamente are much more loosely connected.

Lastly, two keyboard works by Girolamo Frescobaldi, one of the greatest composers of keyboard music in history. The Capriccio Ruggiero combines several variation techniques. The toccata could be compared to the sonata: it also consists of contrasting sections and finds its origin in improvisation.

The programme played here is entertaining enough in itself, but I had liked the ensemble to be a bit more adventurous in their choice of repertoire. Some sonatas by Castello have almost cult status among interpreters of baroque music, and Turini's sonata is also very well-known. I had liked the interpretation to be a little more adventurous too. Don't misunderstand me: the players are all very competent and give fine performances. Sally Holman deserves to be specially mentioned for her impressive playing of the dulcian. But in my view these performances are too introverted. At the time this music was composed we see the rise of the opera, and there is a general preference for musical drama, not only in vocal, but also in instrumental music. And that is where this recording falls a bit short. The performances could have been more exciting, more engaging and more daring. The players keep it too much on the safe side. But maybe it is just that the contest of Apollo and Pan has been won by Apollo.

I am sure there are people who will be very happy with these performances. And I don't want to discourage anyone from purchasing this disc. It is just that I think this repertoire has more to offer than is delivered here.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

CD Reviews