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Michelangelo ROSSI (1601/02 - 1656): "Madrigali al Tavolino"

Ensemble Domus Artis
Dir: Johannes Keller

rec: March 12 - 16, 2019, Zurich, SRF (Grosses Radiostudio)
Glossa - GCD 922522 (© 2021) (56'26")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/IT; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Alma afflitta; Come sian dolorose; Con che soavitŕ; Credete voi; Cura gelata e ria; Langue al vostro languir; O donna troppo cruda; O miseria d'amante; O prodighi di fiamme; Occhi, un tempo mia vita; Ohimč, se tanto amate; Or che la notte; Pallida gelosia; Per non mi dir; Voi volete

Lina Marcela López, soprano; Florencia Menconi, mezzo-soprano; Dániel Mentes, alto; Akinobu Ono, tenor; Breno Quinderé, Csongor Szántó, baritone; Johannes Keller, clavemusicum omnitonum, arciorgano

The madrigal was one of the main genres of secular music in Italy from the early 16th century to the middle of the 17th century. Numerous collections of madrigals were printed and a large number have been preserved in manuscript. During that time, they took different shapes. In the 16th century, the time of the stile antico, all the parts of a madrigal were treated on strictly equal footing. They could be performed by voices alone (a capella) or with instrumental accompaniment. It was also common practice to perform them with one part - usually the upper voice - being sung and the other performed instrumentally. Around 1600 the seconda pratica was born, and composers started to write madrigals with basso continuo. They also incorporated the concertato principle, and Claudio Monteverdi was one of the pioneers in this field. Some of his madrigals pointed in the direction of opera, for instance his Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi of 1638. From that angle the madrigals by Michelangelo Rossi, which are the subject of the disc under review here, are quite remarkable.

Rossi was educated as a violinist, and he was called Michel Angelo del Violino. However, today he is mainly known for a set of Toccate e correnti for keyboard, which were printed in Rome around 1630. The Toccata VII is the most remarkable piece because of its unusual harmonic progressions. Anyone who knows that work probably won't be surprised about the harmonic features of the madrigals recorded by the Ensemble Domus Artis.

The title of this disc refers to an expression that was used in Italy in the first half of the 17th century to characterise a kind of madrigal that was linking up with the tradition of the stile antico. At that time madrigals were usually performed by singers gathering around a table with their partbooks in front of them. In Rossi's time, such performances were part of the meetings of the academies. As late as 1678, a castrato gave this description: "Of all the musical concertos, the madrigali al tavolino 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."

The present disc includes a selection from a collection of 32 madrigals by Rossi that have been preserved in manuscript in a score and a set of partbooks. The presence of a score may seem rather unusual: if every singer has his or her own partbook, what is the use of a score? Martin Kirnbauer, in his liner-notes, explains: "Especially the unusual score notation served already in the sixteenth century for 'silent' reading in order to comprehend the fine details of the composition and the counterpoint, and also to enable the pieces to be played on a keyboard instrument ('spartiti et accommodati per sonar d'ogni sorte d'Istromento perfetto, & per Qualunque studioso di Contrapunti', so the famous printed score of Cipriano de Rore's madrigals of 1577). Significantly, a number of madrigali al tavolino have been preserved in score as well as in partbooks (for example, by D. Mazzocchi, L. Cenci, G.M. Bononcini and F.A. Pistocchi)." He then mentions that Rossi may have become acquainted with this practice through Simone Molinari in his hometown of Genoa, who in 1613 published the collective madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo in a printed score. Interestingly, the score of Rossi's madrigals are from the library of Christina of Sweden, who had settled in Rome after her abdication as Queen. Another composer who had connections to Christina was Alessandro Scarlatti. He also composed a set of madrigals as well as four Sonate a quattro which in manuscript include the term a tavolino.

The latter pieces can be considered old-fashioned, as they omit a basso continuo part and link up with the tradition of playing consort music, but one can also consider them early examples of string quartets, a genre that would become popular in the last quarter of the 18th century. Likewise, the madrigals by Rossi are a mixture of old-fashioned and 'progressive' features. The former come to the fore in the equal treatment of all parts, the omission of instrumental accompaniment and the scoring for five voices with parts for two tenors rather than two sopranos, as had become the custom in his time. On the other hand, Rossi's harmonic language is very much ahead of his time. Kirnbauer, in his original German liner-notes, calls them 'vieltönig', which Howard Weiner translates as "'multitonal' in the literal sense of using many pitches, and refers to a conscious use of more than twelve notated pitches per octave, which in Rossi's madrigals encompass a total of twenty-three (irregularly ordered) pitches (...)." The scores includes double sharps on F and C. That these are meant to be sung can be concluded from an instruction at the start of each partbook that all accidentals (flat and sharp) should be sung.

Considering Rossi's harmonic experiments in the above-mentioned toccata, it may not surprise that, according to research, Rossi was acquainted with an archicembalo (enharmonic harpsichord) by Nicola Vicentino. This was an instrument developed in the mid-16th century with a total of at least 31 pitches per octave. One such instrument was known in Rome and demonstrated in academies. It was said that only Girolamo Frescobaldi could play on it.

The recording of these madrigals is based on this connection between Rossi and the archicembalo. The Swiss keyboard player Johannes Keller is a specialist in this field and has performed Rossi's madrigals with his ensemble in public. In the booklet he points out how these performances take place and what are the ideas behind them. In their performances they aim to recreate the atmosphere of the academies. It is impossible to summarize the whole process here, but a few things need to be mentioned. The singers not only use their parts, but also study the score, because of the unusual harmonies. The interpretation is not fixed during the rehearsals, which lends the performances a certain amount of improvisation. For the performances (and this recording) the organ version of the archicembalo is used, called here arciorgano, which has 36 six pitches per octave. It allows for 109 different sizes of interval. The organ remains in the background, but the harpsichord "defines the contours of the polyphonic texture more strongly and is therefore suited for the rendition of whole madrigals." Keller here plays a clavemusicum omnitonum with 31 keys per octave in intabulations of some madrigals.

Then we come to the actual performance, which is taking place under unusual circumstances: singers and listeners, never more than about 30, are seated intermingled around a long table, at the head of which is the arciorgano. "Each singer processes his/her own text at the moment of music-making and in this way creates an entirely own perspective. The non-singing listener can align himself/herself with an individual singer and adopt his/her perspective or freely choose a perspective. Consequently, there is neither an ideal interpretation nor an ideal position of the listener. The ideal listener is the musician himself/herself. The experience of the madrigal is comprised of individual perceptions which can reconfigure themselves with each hearing. In this sense, the observer must enter the experiment, and in that way influence its outcome."

Obviously, this cannot be copied in a recording. All traces of improvisation are inevitably lost; in fact, that goes for any musical performance, and in that respect each recording is an anomaly. Even so, the performers have tried to make as few compromises as possible and to keep the atmosphere of an academy.

As one may have gathered by now, this recording is unusual in every respect. That starts with the music, which almost nobody may have heard before, and which was quite unusual at its time. While listening to this disc, I was often reminded of Gesualdo. The harmonic progressions are quite unusual, and one probably needs time to get used to them. The performances have a strong amount of intimacy, and the performers have certainly managed to get the listener involved in their own experiences. The harpsichord intabulations are also revealing in that they show what it means that a keyboard has so many pitches, in comparison with the 'conventional' harpsichord.

This is a disc anyone who is interested in madrigals should investigate. For those who have a particular interest in harmony and its use in the 16th and 17th centuries, this disc is indispensable. However, if you just like early music and are not afraid to leave the trodden paths, you may equally enjoy this disc, especially as the performances are of the highest level. I have nothing but admiration for what the singers have achieved during the recording and the process of preparation.

Once in a while a disc is released that deserves a special place in the discography. This is one such disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Domus Artis

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