musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Donne Barocche"

Gabriella Di Laccio, soprano
Audacium Baroque Ensemble

rec: Jan 8 - 10, 2019, Weston (UK), Holy Trinity Church
Drama Musica - DRAMA008 (© 2019) (69'10")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Francesca CACCINI (1587-c1641): Ch'Amor sia nudo [1]; Che t'o fatt'io [1]; Chi desia di saper [1]; Dov'vio credea [1]; Lasciatemi qui solo [1]; Elisabetta DE GAMBARINI (1731-1765) Andante [5]; Behold, behold and listen [5]; Lover go and calm thy sighs - Variations on the foregoing song [5]; Minuet [5]; Elisabeth JACQUET DE LA GUERRE (1665-1729): 1er Suite in d minor (prélude; allemande; chaconne L'Inconstante; menuet) [4]; Barbara STROZZI (1619-1677): Amor dormiglione [2]; La Travagliata [2]; Lagrime mie [3]; Lilla crudele ad onta d'amore [2]; Tra le speranze e'l timore [2]

Sources: [1] Francesca Caccini, Il primo libro delle musiche, 1618; Barbara Strozzi, [2] Cantate, ariette e duetti, op. 2, 1651; [3] Diporti di Euterpe, overo Cantate e ariette a voce sola, op. 7, 1659/R; [4] Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, Pièces de Clavessin, 1687; [5] Elisabetta de Gambarini, Lessons for the Harpsichord, Intermix'd with Italian and English Songs, op. 2, 1748

Layil Barr, recorder, viola da gamba; James Akers, theorbo, guitar; David Wright, harpsichord

Only recently (in October 2020), the Dutch keyboard player and conductor Ton Koopman directed a series of concerts with music by two female composers from 17th-century Italy: Chiara Margarita Cozzolani and Maria Xaveria Perucona. He did so not because they were women, but because their music is of excellent quality, as he explained in interviews. These two women were certainly not the only female composers in their time, and especially Barbara Strozzi is much better known. However, she is virtually the only one who receives the attention she deserves. Over the years, a number of discs with music written by women have crossed my path, but the performers are mostly those who have a special interest in this part of music history. It would be nice if their music would be treated on equal footing with music by their - mostly far better-known - male counterparts. However, it seems that there is still a long way to go before that is the case. Right now, we only become acquainted with the music of female composers through recordings like the one which is under review here. This disc is part of the so-called 'Donne Collection' of the label Drama Musica.

The disc opens with vocal pieces by Francesca Caccini. She was the daughter of Giulio Caccini who, with his compositions and in his writings, expressed a new approach to music in which the text was in the centre and should be depicted in the music. Francesca received an outstanding education, including poetry and music. She wrote poems in Italian and Latin and was able to sing and to play various instruments, among them the harpsichord and the guitar. She was also educated in composition which resulted in her writing operas; she was responsible for the first opera in history from the pen of a woman. Unfortunately only one specimen of this part of her oeuvre has been preserved. Otherwise just one collection of music has come down to us, Il primo libro delle musiche, printed in 1618 and including 32 solo pieces and four duets for soprano and bass, all with basso continuo. Some have a spiritual content, others are secular. The forms are different: there are strophic pieces, but also pure monodies, often in various parts, in which the performer has to follow the rhythm of the text. As Francesca regularly performed as a singer, it seems likely that she wrote these pieces for her own performances in the first place. She may have accompanied herself at the keyboard, the harp or the guitar. The choice of the basso continuo instrument(s) is not indicated, except in a small number of pieces with the addition "canzonetta per cantare sopra la chitarra spagnola". We get here five pieces from this collection: Lasciatemi qui solo is an excellent example of the ideals expressed by her father: the use of music to communicate emotions to the audience. It is in five stanzas, each of which ends with the phrase "Leave me to die". A popular device at the time was the basso ostinato: a repeated bass pattern over which an instrumental or vocal line was woven, often with increasing virtuosity. Here this device is used as the basis for the song Dov'vio credea.

Barbara Strozzi is far better-known than Francesca Caccini. Her music is pretty well represented on disc, and that has everything to do with its quality. Her biography raises some question marks. She was adopted by Giulio Strozzi, and there has been speculation that she was in fact his illegitimate daughter. However, this has been impossible to prove. Whatever is the case, she was treated as a child of his own by Giulio, who himself was very much part of the cultural elite of his time, and was active as a librettist and poet. He made sure that Barbara received an excellent education. He did everything to further her career, and also made her his only heir. It didn't prevent her from living on a small scale. In a letter from December 1651 addressed to the tax authorities of Venice, she states that if she had to pay the special tax for the War of Candia (1645-1669), she would have to live on charity.

In 1644 her first collection of music was printed, comprising madrigals for two to five voices and basso continuo. The last was published in 1664 as her Op. 8, a collection of arias for solo voice and basso continuo. That is also the scoring of most of the pieces in her Op. 2, Cantate, ariette e duetti, printed in 1651. It includes 15 arias and six cantatas for solo voice and five duets. It was dedicated to Ferdinand III, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and Eleanor Gonzaga, at the occasion of their wedding in 1651. Four of the pieces performed here are taken from this collection. Although Strozzi's arias and cantatas are mostly associated with strong emotions, often in the realm of unhappy love, she also composed more light-hearted stuff, and some of that is included here. Lagrime mie, included in the Op. 7 of 1659 (Diporti di Euterpe), is one of her most famous creations; the text is of the kind composers of the time loved to set, as they challenged them to translate human affetti into music. The opening is poignant enough: "My tears, why do you hold back? Why do you not let burst forth the fierce pain that takes my breath and oppresses my heart?" This is repeated at the end, and halfway the first of these lines is inserted. This way it works like a kind of refrain. The rest after the first syllable of "respiro" (breath) is an eloquent example of musical illustration, as it requires the performer to literally hold her breath.

With Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre we move to France and to a later period in music history. She was born into a musical family; her father, Claude Jacquet, was organist at the church of l'Île Saint-Louis in Paris and was active as a keyboard teacher. His four children were all educated in music. Elisabeth was a child prodigy at the harpsichord and performed as such before Louis XIV. He was so impressed that she enjoyed his protection until his death. It allowed her to publish her compositions, among them the first book of harpsichord pieces of 1687, which she dedicated to the Sun King. She was one of only four French composers of the 17th century who had their harpsichord pieces being published. The Pieces de Clavessin of 1687 comprise four suites which all open with a prélude non mesuré, which had its roots in the lute music of the 17th century. The notation is mostly in whole notes with additional slurs which show the organisation and possible duration of the notes. It is up to the imagination of the interpreter to realise such preludes. From the Suite in d minor we get four pieces: apart from the prelude, an allemande, a chaconne and a menuet. The chaconne is another example of a popular bass pattern; any French opera of the time included a chaconne (or a passacaille), and it was also often included in instrumental music as well. Here it is called 'L'inconstante', which makes it one of the earliest character pieces in French harpsichord music. This was to become the main form of harpsichord music in the next century.

The last composer in the programme, Elisabetta de Gambarini, is also the least known. She was born in England, but of Italian descent; her father was Charles Gambarini, counsellor to the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. She was educated as a singer and participated in performances of some of Handel's oratorios, such as Judas Maccabaeus (1747). As a composer, she published three collections of music: a set of six Lessons for harpsichord, a second set with Lessons, "Intermix'd with Italian and English Songs", and a collection of twelve English and Italian songs for flute and basso continuo. From the second collection, the Op. 2 of 1748, the performers selected five pieces: a minuet with variations, an andante and variations on the song Lover go and calm thy sighs, which is also performed. It is a relatively simple and short song. Behold, behold and listen is different: It consists of just six lines, but the performance takes almost four minutes. The reason is that Gambarini treats this song as a dacapo aria, as in an opera. The harpsichord takes the role of the orchestra.

These pieces bring to an end a disc which is quite interesting, even though all of the compositions performed here have been recorded before. That includes Gambarini, whose complete keyboard music was recorded in 1999 by Anthony Noble (Herald, 2000). I had never heard any of her music, but this disc inspires me to look for the recording I mentioned. Less than a year ago I reviewed another disc by Gabriella Di Laccio ("Affetti Barocchi"). I liked several aspects of that recording, but also noted some shortcomings. I am happy to say that there are fewer things to criticise here. I note that Di Laccio shows a good command of the art of recitar cantando, which is especially notable in the most dramatic and emotional items, such as Strozzi's Lagrime mie and Caccini's Lasciatemi. Stylistically, there is hardly anything wrong with her singing, both in the Italian pieces and in the two English songs by Gambarini. She is more generous in her ornamentation than in the previous recording. I am also more satisfied with the dynamic shading, although she could have gone a step further, for instance in the application of the messa di voce (for instance in Caccini's Che t'o fatt'io). In short, this is pretty close to how I think this repertoire should be performed, and I hope that Gabriella Di Laccio will continue on her journey to explore especially the music of the 17th century. She has found ideal partners in the members of the Audacium Baroque Ensemble. David Wright delivers fine performances of the keyboard pieces.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Gabriella Di Laccio
Audacium Baroque Ensemble

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