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"Lettere Amorose"

Magdalena Kozená, mezzo-sopranoa
Private Musicke
Dir: Pierre Pitzl

rec: Sept & Oct 2009, Potsdam, Nikolaisaal
DGG - 00289 477 8764 (© 2010) (61'33")

Luis DE BRIÇEÑO (fl early 17th C): Caravanda Ciacona; Giulio CACCINI (1551-1618): Odi, Euterpe, 'l dolce cantoa [1]; Sigismondo D'INDIA (c1582-before 1629): Cruda Amarillia [2]; Ma che? Squallido e oscuroa [2]; Torna il sereno Zefiroa [6]; Giovanni Paolo FOSCARINI (fl 1629-1647): Ciacona; Giovanni Girolamo KAPSBERGER (C1580-1651): Aurilla mia, quando m'accesea [4]; Felici gl'animia [7]; Giovanni DE MACQUE (1548/50-1614): Capriccio stravagante; Biagio MARINI (1594-1663): Con le stelle in ciela [5]; Tarquinio MERULA (1594/95- 1665): Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna (Hor ch'è tempo di dormire)a [9]; Folle è ben chi si credea [9]; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): Si dolce è il tormentoa [8]; Lucas RUIZ DE RIBAYAZ (before 1650-?): Espagnoletta [12]; Gaspar SANZ (mid-17th - early 18th C): Canarios [11]; Barbara STROZZI (1619-1677): L'Eraclito amoroso (Udite amanti)a [10]; Filippo VITALI (c1599-1653): O bei lumia [3];

Sources: [1] Giulio Caccini, Le nuove musiche, 1601/02; [2] Sigismondo d'India, Primo libro di musiche da cantar solo, 1609; [3] Filippo Vitali, Musiche a una e due voci, libro secondo, 1618; [4] Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, Libro secondo di villanelle, 1619; [5] Biagio Marini, Scherzi e canzonette, op. 5, 1622; [6] Sigismondo d'India, Quinto libro di musiche da cantar solo, 1623; [7] Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, Libro quarto di villanelle, 1623; [8] Claudio Monteverdi, Quarto scherzo delle ariose vaghezze, 1624; [9] Tarquinio Merula, Curtio precipitato et altri capricii, libro secondo, 1638; [10] Barbara Strozzi, Cantate, ariette e duetti, op. 2, 1651; [11] Gaspar Sanz, Instrucción de música sobre la guitarra española, 1674; [12] Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz, Luz y norte musical para caminar, 1677

Pierre Pitzl, viola da gamba, guitar; Brigitte Gasser, lirone; Richard Myron, violone; Daniel Pilz, colascione; Jesús Fernández Baena, theorbo; Hugh Sandilands, guitar; Margret Köll, harp; Gabriele Miracle, percussion

The liner-notes of this disc say: "Finding the right ensemble with whom to record was crucial. The singer particularly liked the undogmatic approach of Private Musicke, and the effects it generated through its imaginative use of plucked and bowed period instruments". Magdalena Kozena is then quoted as saying: "The basic assumption with this repertoire is that everybody is free to make their own arrangements, and decide which instruments they will use". Reading this one fears the worst.

All too often the term 'undogmatic' means in practice that one doesn't care that much about what the historical sources say about performance practice in the time the music was written. Being 'dogmatic' seems to be a musician's worst nightmare these days. And sometimes a performer who chooses to stick to what we know from the sources or a reviewer who criticises the lack of respect for that knowledge can be called a 'fundamentalist'. But this disc proves once again that the ignorance of the results of historical research doesn't lead to better performances - on the contrary.

So let me try to sum up what is wrong. Firstly, although Ms Kozena and The Private Musicke are in favour of freedom for the performer, it is rather odd that the amount of ornamentation is rather limited, and the choice of ornaments is one-sided. What is worse, the ideal of recitar cantando - a speech-like way of singing, which includes a treatment of rhythm which is based on the text rather than on the music -, doesn't come off here. That is also reflected by the largely too slow tempi. Examples are Claudio Monteverdi's Si dolce è il tormento, Con le stelle in ciel by Biagio Marini and Folle è ben chi si crede by Tarquinio Merula. And whereas vibrato is an ornament in this time of history, Ms Kozena doesn't care and uses it consistently. It is mostly not very wide and therefore not too obtrusive, but still at odds with what we know about the performance practice of the time.

The ideal of recitar cantando is closely connected to the aim of composers from the first half of the 17th century: putting the text into the centre. The communication of the text was everything that mattered, and all other things were secondary. That has consequences for the way the instruments for the basso continuo are chosen. When too many instruments are used and these instruments make too much noise, the attention of the audience is taken away from the text, and that is a basic error in this repertoire. But that is exactly what happens here. In almost every piece we hear two plucked instruments, often with a string bass. That may be appropriate in the theatre, here it is mostly too much. And if that isn't bad enough, in many pieces percussion is added. That seems to be the latest fashion as I have noted this tendency in various recent recordings. (Elsewhere I have called this percussionitis.) I really don't know for sure what this is all about. Maybe it is an attempt to bring out the rhythmic pulse. But this way the players of the plucked and bowed instruments show their own inability to do so themselves. The addition of percussion doesn't make the performances any better nor does the use of plucked instruments as percussion. Another feature which takes the attention away from the text is the often long instrumental introductions to various arias. Kapsberger's Aurilla mia, quando m'accese) lasts 3'17", but no less than 1'25" is devoted to an instrumental introduction.

So is Ms Kozena wrong when she claims the freedom of the performers? Not per se, but that freedom is always related to the style and the taste of the time as well as the circumstances in which the music was performed. I have already indicated that the text has always to be in the centre. And that not only restricts the freedom in the choice of accompanying instruments, it is also important to realise where this kind of music was performed. "It comes from a time when there was no equivalent to our divide between classical and pop music: it was simply the music everybody heard and sang. Some of these songs would have been performed in churches, but some are street music, and others were just intended for people to come together and play, rather than perform for an audience". I would like to know which music on this programme was 'street music'. Composers like Caccini, d'India, Merula and Kapsberger moved in the highest circles, and their music was intended for performances at aristocratic courts. The frequent use of the guitar and the addition of percussion seems extremely unlikely in such performances.

One of the most fascinating pieces of the programme is Merula's Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna. This is a lullaby with an intimate vocal line and consistently repeated dissonant chords in the basso continuo. The text juxtaposes the sweetness of the little baby Jesus and the horrible things which will come. As the first stanza says: "Now that it's time for sleep, sleep, my son, and do not cry, for the time will come when you will have to weep". In later stanzas the sufferings will be spelled out in detail. The music doesn't change until the very last couple of stanzas, but the performers thought it appropriate to change the scoring of the basso continuo, adding to the single guitar which accompanies the voice. By doing so and by Ms Kozena raising her voice they apparently attempt to make this canzonetta more dramatic in a theatrical way. But this destroys the fine contrast between voice and accompaniment. Shortly after listening to this disc I attended a concert by the Scorpio Collectief, during which Monika Mauch sang this very piece as well. The subtlety of her performance and the accompaniment of the ensemble contrasted sharply with the interpretation of Magdalena Kozena and Private Musicke. The former made a stronger and more lasting impression than the latter, and above all was much more moving.

The music of this disc comes from one of the most exciting periods in music history. The composers all belong to the top of the bill of their time, but the repertoire requires a different approach from what we get here. A number of pieces have been recorded before, and better. Ms Kozena's singing as such isn't as bad as I feared, but on balance this disc doesn't serve the music very well, to put it mildly. It hardly matters that the booklet is very short on information about the composers and the music. All lyrics are included, though, with translations in English, French and German.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Magdalena Kozena
Private Musicke

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