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"The Medici Castrato - A homage to Gualberto Magli (?-1625)"

Raffaele Pe, alto; Chiara Granata, triple harp; David Miller, theorbo

rec: June 20 & July 2- 4, 2013, Dengie (Essex), St James's Church
Glossa - GCD 923501 (© 2014) (57'02")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

anon: Se fama al mondo; Francesca CACCINI (1587-c1645): Dispiegate guance amate [5]; Giulio CACCINI (1550-1618): Amarilli mia bella [1]; Sfogava con le stelle [1]; Alessandro CICCOLINI (*1970): Solo e pensoso; Sigismondo D'INDIA (c1582-1629): Ancidetemi pur (Lamento di Giasone) [6]; Piangono al pianger mio [2]; Francesco LAMBARDI (1587-1642): O felice quel giorno [3]; Girolamo MONTESARDO (1580-1620): Hor che la nott'ombrosa [3]; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): L'Orfeo ([Prologue] Dal mio Permesso; Primo Intermezzo; [Act III] Ecco l'atra palude; Possente spirto; [Act IV] Signor, quell'infelice); Johann NAUWACH (1595-1630): Amarilli mia bella (after Giulio Caccini) [6]; Jetzund kömpt die nacht herbey [7]; Tempesta di dolcezza [6]; Giovanni Maria TRABACI (c1575-1647): Toccata II per l'arpa [4]

Sources: [1] Giulio Caccini, Le nuove musiche,1601/02; [2] Sigismondo d'India, Le musiche, 1609; [3] Girolamo Montesardo, I lieti giorni di Napoli: concertini italiani in aria spagnuola con le lettere dell’alfabeto per la chitarra, 1612; [4] Giovanni Maria Trabaci, Il secondo libro de ricercate & altri varij capricci, 1615; [5] Francesca Caccini, Il primo libro delle musiche, 1618; [6] Sigismondo d'India, Le musiche, con alcune arie, con l'alfabetto per la chitarra ... libro V, 1623; Johann Nauwach, [6] Libro primo di arie passeggiate, 1623; [7] Erster Theil teutscher Villanellen, 1627

If one enjoys and admires the music which has come down to us, sometimes from a distant past, one would like to know who performed it when it was created. We mostly know the composers but most performers who have left no lasting signs of their presence in the form of compositions have disappeared in the dust of history. However, sometimes the name of an artist crops up who made such an impression that contemporaries expressed their admiration in letters or in witness reports of their performances. We know, for instance, about the excitement the Concerto delle Dame caused in Ferrara. The present disc is a kind of musical biography of another singer of some fame who is known for having participated in the first performances of Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo: the castrato Giovanni Gualberto Magli.

He was born in Florence, but the year of his birth is not known. He was a pupil of Giulio Caccini and in 1604 he entered the service of the Medici family. In 1607 he was loaned to the Gonzaga court in Mantua where he took part in the first performances of L'Orfeo. Duke Francesco IV Gonzaga considered the performance of this opera and wrote to his brother in Pisa whether he could recommend him some castratos who served at the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany and whom he had heard and admired. His brother then offered to send "a pupil of Giulio Romano [Caccini]", referring to Magli. From this one has to conclude that at that time he had already made a name for himself.

Another letter from Francesco's brother reveals that Magli had trouble to get used to Monteverdi's music. This is an aspect which we as listeners and admirers of the stile nuovo tend to forget. For many performers at the time this was indeed a "new style" as singers were trained in the polyphony of the stile antico. This music required a completely new mindset and it is only natural that it took time before they mastered the considerable technical requirements. But Magli was clearly an outstanding singer. Duke Francesco wrote about the last rehearsal for the performance that Magli "not only memorized his role outstandingly, but also performed it with much grace and feeling." Magli sang the roles of Musica and Proserpina, and probably another role as well. Duke Francesco was so impressed that he kept Magli for longer than the fixed period. This episode in Magli's career is documented here with excerpts from L'Orfeo.

In 1608 Magli participated in the festivities at the occasion of the wedding of Cosimo II de' Medici who succeeded Francesco as Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1609. Here he met Sigismondo d'India who visited Florence in 1608, and some of whose songs were performed by Caccini. Specimens of the compositions of these two masters are included here. The pieces selected for this programme are rather well-known: Caccini's Amarilli mia bella is even an evergreen. Ancidetemi pur by D'India is a highly dramatic piece, subtitled Lamento di Giasone. In 1611 Magli was sent to Naples to further develop his skills. At the time it was a centre of harp playing and several names of composers are connected to this instrument, such as Ascanio Mayone and Giovanni Maria Trabaci. The latter is represented with the Toccata II. The accompaniment of the vocal items on this disc on the harp reflects a widespread practice at the time. It is quite possible that in later years Magli also accompanied himself on the harp, because during his stay in Naples he learnt to play the instrument. The programme includes pieces by Francesco Lambardi, a composer who was born in Naples, and by Girolamo Montesardo who stayed there around 1611. He had become acquainted with the new monodic style in Florence and probably introduced it to Naples.

After his return to Florence Magli acted also as secretary of the Grand Duke. In 1615 he entered the service of the Brandenburg Elector Johann Sigismund. However, the next year his employer allowed Magli to return to Italy for three months, but whether he ever came back is not known. There are no traces of his whereabouts since then. The German stage of Magli's career is documented with pieces by Johann Nauwach. He started his career as a choirboy at the court in Dresden and studied in Italy from 1612 to 1618. We hear two Italian pieces from a collection of arie passeggiate which appeared in 1623. One of them is a highly ornamented version of Caccini's Amarilli mia bella. It is an example of virtuosity for virtuosity's sake; it has little substance and Caccini's original is superior in every way. Tempesta di dolcezza is better stuff, and Jetzund kömpt die nacht herbey is a particularly delightful song from Nauwach's second collection which comprises pieces in German. This song is on a text by the famous poet Martin Opitz.

This disc is remarkable, not only for focusing on a singer who played quite a significant role in Italian music life in the early decades of the 17th century, but also because of Raffaele Pe's performances. He has a very beautiful voice with a wide range; he reminds me of Philippe Jaroussky, also in that he - although called a countertenor - easily moves into the tessitura of a soprano. He has a very agile voice which is especially useful in this kind of repertoire, with its often virtuosic ornamentation and its close connection between text and music. Pe masters the art of recitar cantando and understands the need of dynamic differentation. The affetti of the pieces in this programme come off effectively. D'India's Ancidetemi pur is one of his best-known pieces but I haven't heard it often in such a dramatic performance. It is certainly one of the highlights of this disc. Nauwach's German song is quite different, much more intimate, but Pe sings it with great sensitivity. His German is not perfect, but remarkably good. I am happy to say that he controls his vibrato perfectly. It is only in some very virtuosic pieces - for instance Nauwach's arrangement of Caccini's Amarilli mia bella - and some episodes at high speed that a somewhat nervous vibrato creeps in. The harp plays a major role here, and Chiara Granata plays it excellently.

There is every reason to enthusiastically recommend this disc. Its subject, the repertoire, the performance and the informative programme notes are all good arguments in its favour.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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Raffaele Pe

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