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Ercole BERNABEI (1622 - 1687): Concerto Madrigalesco

Dir: Marco Horvat

rec: August 31 - Sept 4, 2022, Trédez-Locquémeau (F), Église Notre-Dame
En Phases - ENP010 (© 2023) (73'03")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ercole BERNABEI: Altro frutto non colsi; Ardo e taccio il mio mal; Ardo tacito amante; Bei labbri, io non vi chieggio; Ch'io non v'ami?; Fulminate, begli occhi; Già mi minaccia Amore; Oh se poteste mai (prima parte) - Hor se 'l gelo de gl’anni (seconda parte); Mal'accorti miei lumi; Non merita pietà; Non più strali, ben mio; Perch'io vado lontano; Spira dagl'occhi suoi; Tal'hora intento in un bel volto; Ti lascio, anima mia; Angelo Michele BARTOLOTTI (c1615-c1681): Preludio; Preludio; Bernardo PASQUINI (1637-1710): Passacaglie; Giacomo SIMONELLI (fl 1668-1684): Toccata

Myriam Arbouz, soprano; Marine Fribourg, mezzo-soprano; Andrea Gavagnin, haute-contre; Francisco Mañalich, tenor, viola da gamba; Jan Jeroen Bredewold, bass; Anne-Sophie Eiselé, viola da gamba, lirone; Eliaz Hercelin, viola da gamba; Caroline Lieby, harp; Marco Horvat, lirone, theorbo (soloa), archlute, guitar (solob); Ayumi Nakagawa, harpsichord (soloc), organ

A large part of the music from the 17th and 18th centuries would never have written without patronage. Only aristocrats with ambitions in the field of music could afford not entering the service of an institution, such as a town, a church or a court, or a rich individual. Some patrons of music have had a substantial influence on the course of music history, as some of the main composers of their time were associated with them. Among these were Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689), who settled in Rome after her conversion to Catholicism and abdication. Three other important patrons also lived in Rome: the Cardinals Pamphili (1653-1730) and Ottoboni (1667-1740) and the Marquis Ruspoli (1672-1731). It makes sense to mention patrons from Rome, because the present disc brings us to the 'eternal city', and the central figure is Flavio Orsini, Duke of Bracciano (1620-1698), who was a member of one of the main aristocratic dynasties of Rome.

In 1669, Ercole Bernabei published a collection of madrigals under the title Concerto madrigalesco a tre voci diverse, and dedicated it to Flavio Orsini. Acting as a patron had an important social function, as in the case of Orsini. Anne-Madeleine Goulet, in her liner-notes, states that "[a] man of culture, keenly interested in the sciences, and a patron of many artists, Flavio Orsini was a nobleman in the image of the Renaissance prince. He perpetuated a family tradition whereby music in particular showed not only the power and fortune of its patron, but also his sensitivity and refinement. As a sign of wealth and a means of ostentation, music was a necessary complement to power."

Apart from the status aspect, many patrons were genuinely interested in the arts and in music. Orsini liked to listen to music, which was performed in his palace, and he owned many musical instruments, including an organo a forma di cimbalo. Orsini also owned a library, which not only included books, but also librettos and scores. From 1668 onwards a copyist helped him to extend his library. Orsini also had literary ambitions, as he wrote poems, songs and librettos of operas and cantatas.

The Duke had his own musical establishment, and acted as patron of various composers, among them Alessandro Melani, Alessandro Stradella and Alessandro Scarlatti. And then there was Ercole Bernabei, who is one of the lesser-known composers of the Italian Baroque. If he is mentioned, it is mostly because of his service at the Bavarian court in Munich, from 1674 until his death, succeeding Johann Kaspar Kerll as Kapellmeister. Bernabei was a pupil of Orazio Benevoli, the composer who was once thought to have written the Missa Salisburgensis (now attributed to Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber). From 1653 to 1665 Bernabei acted as organist, and from 1667 to 1672 as maestro di cappella, at San Luigi dei Francesi. When Benevoli died, Bernabei succeeded him as maestro di cappella of the Cappella Giulia at the papal court. Bernabei also taught composition to some talented pupils; the best-known among them is Agostino Steffani, who would go with him to Munich in 1674.

Very little of Bernabei's oeuvre has been preserved. The collection of madrigals performed here by Faenza is undoubtedly one of his main works. It is remarkable in its form, as the heydays of the genre of the madrigal were long gone. However, there were a few composers who held it still in high esteem. Bernabei was one of them; others were Alessandro Scarlatti and Alessandro Stradella. It is interesting to quote here a castrato who wrote as late as 1678: "Of all the musical concertos, the madrigali al tavolino [madrigals to be sung around a table] occupy the first rank at the academies, because above all the other forms they are the most sublime, since one finds in them an extract of the harmony combined with the most consummate learnedness and an incomparable beauty of melody which vividly expresses the sense of the poem most fittingly, in order to move the emotions of those who hear them."

That is a pretty good description of the nature of these madrigals for three voices by Bernabei. Ten madrigals are settings of texts by Girolamo Preti (1582-1626), who also had been associated with the Orsini family. It is notable that Bernabei painstakingly translates the texts into music. These pieces include many musical figures illustrating words and phrases. The three-part texture also allows for the use of harmony for expressive reasons. Although the genre was basically old-fashioned, and rooted in the stile antico, they include contemporary elements in that single voices are given solo passages. Moreover, the technical requirements are considerable, especially as they require a wider tessitura than was common in such music. The liner-notes quote the harpsichordist Frédéric Michel, who made the transcriptions for the recording: "In this true dialogue between the prima and the seconda prattica, references to the earlier style are constantly present: simple counterpoint, numerous contrapuntal imitations, sensuous dissonances, a demonstrative use of the rhetoric of the passions in music."

I can't remember having heard music by Bernabei ever before. I only knew him by name, and this disc came quite as a surprise. It is a mystery that such a collection of madrigals has never been recorded before. These pieces are really good, and I am very happy that they are available on disc now, and in such excellent performances to boot. What we get here is more than an hour of most compelling music, performed by a group of top-class singers, who know how to bring out the music's qualities. They pay utmost attention to the text, the harmonic peculiarities are perfectly realized, and the dynamic shading is just as it should be. The instrumentalists are doing a fine job as well, and the few instrumental pieces are well-chosen, by contemporaries and stylistically in the same vein.

I am sure that anyone who purchases this disc, shall return to it regularly, thanks to both Bernabei and Faenza.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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