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"Intermedi della Pellegrina"

Rossana Bertini, Elena Bertuzzi, soprano; Candida Guida, contralto; Paolo Fanciullacci, tenor; Marco Scavazza, baritone; Mauro Borgioni, bass
Coro Ricercare Ensemble; Modo Antiquo
Dir: Federico Maria Sardelli

rec: June 16 - 18, 2019, Florence, Palazzo Pitti (Giardino di Boboli)
Dynamic - CDS7856 (© 2020) (65'58")
Liner-notes: E/I; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

In the course of history, important events in the life of monarchs and other rulers, such as weddings, have usually been accompanied by extensive celebrations. It was a way to show their power and influence, both internally (to their subjects) as on the international stage. It seems unlikely, though, that any event was so lavishly celebrated as the wedding of Ferdinand I de' Medici and Christina of Lorraine in 1589 in Florence. Part of the celebrations was the performance of a play, written ten years before by Girolamo Bargagli: La Pellegrina (The Prilgrim Woman). The various acts were separated by intermedi, whose music was written by some of the best composers of the time. Bettina Hoffmann, in her liner-notes to the production under review here, calls the event a Gesamtkunstwerk. Even the spectators were part of the decor, "part of a comprehensive aesthetic programme aimed at the achievement of perfect beauty".

The play itself is completely forgotten; it is telling that the article on La Pellegrina at Wikipedia does not even include a synopsis. The intermedi have completely overshadowed the play, and today its title refers exclusively to the intermedi. That is not something of the present; that was already the case at the time of their performance. As Bettina Hoffmann points out, initially intermedi were used to separate the acts of comedies, as the stagecraft had no curtain to end an act. In the course of time, the intermedi, which in their content had no connection to the comedies anyway, became more theatrical and gradually became the subject of attention of the audiece, at the cost of the play. Whereas earlier they were used to separate the acts of a play, with time the play became an excuse for the performance of intermedi.

The texts of the intermedi were written by Giovanni de' Bardi, Ottavio Rinuccini, Giovanni Battista Strozzi and Laura Lucchesini. Their theme is the power of music, which is expressed in different stories. The first intermedio, for instance, is about harmony descending upon the earth, whereas the third is about the combat of Apollo, the god of music, with the serpent Python. In the closing intermedio, Jupiter appears in the sky with the council of gods. He sends Apollo and Bacchus to mankind with Rhythm and Harmony, to give them music and dance as a present. The work ends with a dance of gods and mortals. That piece is a real earworm and has become a kind of signature tune. It is from the pen of Emilio de' Cavalieri, one of the composers who contributed to the intermedi. Others were Cristofano Malvezzi, Luca Marenzio, Giulio Caccini, Giovanni de' Bardi and Giulio Caccini. The latter was to become one of the main promoters of the stile nuovo around 1600. The intermedi are a specimen of the time of change in musical aesthetics at the last decades of the 16th century. They are a mixture of the stile antico, for instance in the many ensembles and choruses, and the new style, which reveals itself in the virtuosic solos, which are full of coloratura.

The intermedi were not just a celebration of the power of music or in honour of Ferdinando and Christina, but had also a philosophical and political dimension. As Bettina Hoffmann writes: "The art of music was presented as a grandiose allegory of good governance: to create harmony (among the subjects), to fine-tune (opposing factions), to get from dissonance to consonance (in the negotiations with hostile parties), to keep up a good rhythm (in state activities) were all virtues both of music and of good governance". This can be explained from the influence of platonic philosophy. "According to Plato's reasoning, to educate the inhabitants of a polis a legislator ought to organize choirs, which will introduce them to the joy of harmony and rhythm and make them bond; those who have never known the art of a choir, indeed, are to be considered uneducated. The good legislator should create three choirs, according to the mens' [sic] age: young, mature and old. This message (...) was extremely clear to those who were used to reading in-between the lines of images and symbols: Ferdinando, third Grand Duke of Tuscany, by deploying multiple choirs in the Uffizi theatre, proved to be a ruler worthy of Plato's highest political utopia".

In 1589 a large ensemble of singers - at least sixty, according to Malvezzi - and instrumentalists was involved in the performance of the intermedi. This explains why they are not often performed in our time, even though most performers confine themselves to a smaller ensemble. The booklet to the present disc omits any information about the performers involved; only the vocal soloists are mentioned. It seems unlikely that the ensemble is as large as in 1589. Overall, I am pretty disappointed about this performance. Most of the solos are sung by Rossana Bertini, a fine singer who is also a member of the Compagnia del Madrigale, one of the best madrigal ensembles of our time. However, here her singing is more often than not marred by an incessant vibrato. The ensembles are also under par, as the voices don't blend that well. The choruses are relatively well done, but even here the vibrato in some voices damages the ensemble. The instrumentalists do a good job, although here and there the recorders are a bit shrill and a little out of tune. Some of the shortcomings may be the effect of this being the recording of a live performance. However, I am not sure that a studio production would have been fundamentally better. Recently I heard a live performance at the Festival Early Music Utrecht, directed by Skip Sempé. His ensemble comprised two soloists, a vocal ensemble of 22 and an instrumental group of about the same size. With that relatively modest number of singers and players he realised a most impressive performance, which was vastly superior to what is on offer here. I hope that Sempé will have the chance to make a recording with the same forces. That may well result in a recording that will set the standard.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Modo Antiquo
Ricercare Ensemble

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