musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Sacred Garland: Devotional Chamber Music from the Age of Monteverdi"

The Gonzaga Band
rec: April 2 - 4, 2008, Toddington, Church of St Andrew
Chandos - CHAN 0761 (© 2009) (63'24")

Giovanni Battista BOVICELLI (fl 1592-1594): Angelius as pastores (after De Rore, Ancor che col partire)ae [1]; Nicoḷ CORRADINI (?-1646): Spargite floresabce [4]; Archangelo CROTTI (fl 1608): Congratulamini mihi omnesabc [2]; Ignatio DONATI (c1570-1638): O gloriosa Dominaabce [11]; Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Canzona La Bernardiniabd [12]; Canzona La Capriolabce [12]; Toccata Id [13]; Alessandro GRANDI (1586-1630): Jesu, mi dulcissimeac [10]; Giovanni Girolamo KAPSBERGER (c1580-1651): Toccata VIIce [14]; Tarquino MERULA (1594/95-1665): Gaudeamus omnesabcd; Nigra sumabce [9]; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): Venite, sitientes ad aquasabce [8]; Alessandro PICCININI (1566-c1638): Toccata XIIc [7]; Giovanni PICCHI (fl 1600-1625): Toccatae [3]; Benedetto RE (fl early 17th C): Tulerunt Dominumabce [5]; Francesco ROGNONI (?-after 1626): Pulchra es amica mea (after Da Palestrina)be [6]; Michelangelo ROSSI (c1602-1565): Partite sopra la Romanescad [15]

(Sources: [1] Giovanni Battista Bovicelli, Regole, passaggi di musica, madrigali et motetti passeggiati, 1594; [2] Archangelo Crotti, Il primo libro de' concerti ecclesiastici, 1608; [3] Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, 1609-1619; [4] Nicoḷ Corradini, Motetti, libro I, 1613; [5] Benedetto Re, Sacrum cantionum, 1618; [6] Francesco Rognoni, Selva de varii passaggi, 1620; [7] Alessandro Piccinini, Intavolatura di liuto, et di chitarrone, libro primo, 1623; [8] Seconda raccolta de sacri canti, 1624; [9] Tarquinio Merula, Il primo libro de motetti e sonate concertati, 1624; [10] Alessandro Grandi, Motetti con sinfonie, libro II, 1625; [11] Ignatio Donati, Flores praestantissimorum, 1626; [12] Girolamo Frescobaldi, Il primo libro delle canzoni, 1628; [13] Girolamo Frescobaldi, Il secondo libro di toccate, 1637; [14] Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, Libro quarto d'intavolatura di chitarrone, 1640; [15] Michelangelo Rossi, Toccate e correnti, 1657/2)

Faye Newton, sopranoa; Jamie Savan, cornettb; Richard Sweeney, theorboc; Steven Devine, harpsichordd, organe

The Italian music of the early 17th century shows a remarkable versatility in forms and styles, from pieces for solo instrument to large-scale vocal works and operas. It was a time when the old prima prattica and the seconda prattica were competing on the one hand, but were merged on the other hand. A good example of the latter is the Vespro della Beata Vergine by Claudio Monteverdi.

This disc concentrates on music which is written according to the principles of the seconda prattica. In the booklet the characteristics of this style are explained at length. There are also useful remarks about what composers expected from interpreters. That makes it all the more sad that so little of these principles has been put into practice on this disc.

In the music of this time the choice of instruments is often left to the performers. Designations like per violino o cornetto or even soprano point in this direction. Sometimes a part may even be either sung or played. An example is O gloriosa Domina by Ignatio Donati which is set for soprano and a second soprano à modo di ecco. The latter part can either be sung or played. The 'echo voice' is here played by a mute cornett.

There was a close connection between the human voice and the instruments anyway. In the seconda prattica the text was predominant. It was said that the text was the 'mistress' of the music. As a result the human voice was superior over instruments. This was underlined by the common ideal of instruments imitating the voice. The more an instrument was able to imitate the human voice, the more it was estimated. And it was in particular the cornett which was considered ideally suited to act like a singer. It is a shame the programme doesn't contain any piece whose vocal part is played on the cornett.

But what we get is a series of diminutions on a vocal part: Pulchra es amica mea by Palestrina, with diminutions by Francesco Rognoni. This sheds light on the fact that the 'new' style was rooted in the practice of the late 16th century, when composers took a line from a polyphonic motet and wrote instrumental variations on it. The performance is too stiff: even in an instrumental performance the text has to be expressed. Some rhythmic freedom is sorely missing in the interpretation.

In between the vocal pieces instrumental works for an instrument and bc are played as well as solo pieces for lute and keyboard. Kapsberger's Toccata VII is played here with theorbo and organ. There is no indication of an organ in the score but that doesn't mean this is against the style of the time. Pieces for a plucked instrument and organ were quite common in those days.

Like I said the performances show little of what is written in the booklet about how this repertoire has to be performed. Ornamentation is applied, and I am happy to say that Faye Newton is able to sing the trillo properly, like in Jesu, mi dulcissime by Alessandro Grandi. But she is much too moderate in the application of ornaments, and there is little variation in this department. Often the runs and coloraturas are a bit stiff and don't flow as easily as one would wish. These shortcomings are immediately demonstrated in the very first item on the programme, Spargite flores by Nicoḷ Corradini.

A serious flaw is the lack of real dynamic contrast. Here and there we hear some dynamic shades, but they are few and far between and not applied with any consistency. They are mostly too small anyway. But what is the most fundamental shortcoming is that the singing - and playing - is far away from the ideal of Caccini and his time, and what he called recitar cantando, speechlike singing. Rhythmically the delivery of the text is too strict, and the soprano should have taken much more liberties in the declamation of the text, with small breathing spaces and rubato.

The performance of the keyboard pieces is mostly not very captivating which is right against the character of the repertoire. The booklet says that the Toccata by Picchi is the only piece by him which has survived. That is incorrect: in 1621 a book with dances for harpsichord (Intavolatura di balli) was printed. In his early days Ton Koopman has devoted a whole record to Picchi's keyboard oeuvre.
The pieces for theorbo come off best, and the canzonas for cornett and bc are also relatively well played. But on the whole this disc is severely disappointing. The name of the ensemble derives from the Gonzaga family, who for some time employed Monteverdi, and which was famous for the splendour of its music. I am sure the musicians of the Gonzagas delivered much more exciting performances than their modern counterparts on this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

The Gonzaga Band

CD Reviews