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"The Harp of Luduvico"

Andrew Lawrence-King, arpa dobladaa, arpa doppiab

rec: Feb 1991, Toddington (Gloucestershire), St Andrew's Church
Hyperion-Helios - CDH55264 (R) (© 2006) (70'06")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Aria detta Ballatab [6]; Aria detta la Frescobaldab [6]; Ciaconab [6]; Toccata Vb [6]; Toccata IXb [6]; Toccata Xb [6]; Andrew LAWRENCE-KING (b.1959): Improvisations after Diego Ortiz: Divisions on Paradetasa [4]; Fantasiaa [4]; Tutte le vecchie (Giovan Tomaso di Maio)a [2]; Govanni DE MACQUE (c1548/50-1614): Gagliarda Ib; Prime Stravaganzeb; Toccata a modo di trompetasb; Orazio MICHI DELL'ARPA (1594/95-1641): I diletti di mundob [7]; Quel signorb [7]; Su duro troncob [7]; Luis DE MILÁN (c1500-c1561): Fantasia de consonancias y redoublesa [1]; Pavana (arr Andrew Lawrence-King)a; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): Vespro della Beata Vergine (Nigra sum)b [6]; Alonso MUDARRA (c1510-1580): Fantasia que contrahaze la harpa en la maniera de Luduvicoa [3]; Spagnoletta (arr Andrew Lawrence-King)a

Sources: [1] Luis de Milán, El Maestro, 1536; [2] Giovan Tomaso di Maio, Canzon villanesche libro primo, 1546; [3] Alonso Mudarra, Libro primero de musica en cifra, 1546; [4] Diego Ortiz, Tratado de glosas, 1553; [5] Claudio Monteverdi, Sanctissimae Virgini ... Vespere, 1610; [6] Girolamo Frescobaldi, Toccate e Partite libro primo, 1615 / Il secondo libro di toccate e altri Partite, 1627; [7] Orazio Michi dell'Arpa, Arie Spirituali, 1640

The harp is often considered most suitable to play gentle, soft music, in order to bring peace to a troubled soul. That is probably the result of the association of the harp with the biblical King David, who - before he became king - played the harp when King Saul was possessed by an evil spirit from God. But the programme on this disc shows a completely different side of the harp, in particular the pieces by Italian composers of the 17th century.

When Andrew Lawrence-King recorded this programme, in 1991, the harp hardly played a role in the performance of early music. Before that recordings were made with music of the renaissance and the early baroque, but on modern harps; this way the features of this repertoire are hardly revealed. One of the reasons is the use of the modern equal temperament, which flattens some of the dissonances composers included in their works, using meantone temperament. This disc contains a striking example with Frescobaldi's Ciacona.

As there are many similarities between the harp, the harpsichord and the chitarrone many Italian compositions of the 17th century can be played on either instrument. It is probably also down to the fact that the harp wasn't as widespread as the harpsichord or the chitarrone that not many pieces are specifically written for the instrument. Some of the repertoire for the harp has been lost. The programme includes three pieces by a composer called Orazio Michi dell'Arpa: he was considered the most brilliant harpist of his time, but none of his compositions for his own instrument have survived. Therefore one can only guess what his skills must have been like. To give an impression Andrew Lawrence-King plays three vocal pieces from a collection with monodies, in which it is very likely that the singer was expected to be accompanied by the harp. I very much would like to hear them sung that way, as these are very fine pieces.

All compositions by Frescobaldi are written for the keyboard, especially the harpsichord. However, as this recording shows, they do very well on the harp. Because of his thorough knowledge of the performance practice of the time Lawrence-King provides very dramatic interpretations, using the dynamic possibilities of the harp to great effect. It is this feature of the harp which made it a frequently used instrument in the opera as well.

An important part of Lawrence-King's interpretation is improvisation. That is in line with what we know about performances in the 17th century. In particular the many toccatas of that time provide impressive evidence of the art of improvisation. Sometimes improvisation is nothing more than adding ornaments, sometimes it means adapting a vocal piece to the possibilities of the harp. That is the case in the monodies by Orazio Michi dell'Arpa, which I already mentioned, but also in the concerto 'Nigra sum' from Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine, which receives a wonderfully creative interpretation here. One would hope singers of this repertoire are going to listen to this performance to hear how one can interpret this well-known piece in a very dramatic way.

More free improvisation takes place in the first part of the programme, which brings music by Spanish composers of the 16th century. This repertoire isn't often associated with the harp, but in the booklet Lawrence-King writes: "The toccata owed its origins to musicians such as Luduvico, an early sixteenth-century Spanish harpist, whose improvising style (as imitated in a fantasia for vihuela by Mudarra) shows several features that were to become typical of toccata-writing ..." Lawrence-King plays some improvisations of his own, and as the harp was played in Spain he also takes some pieces written for the vihuela to show the capabilities of the harp.

Two different harps are used here, a Spanish and an Italian 'double harp', both copies of historical instruments. Lawrence-King's playing is brilliant, and the programme is enthralling. The interpreter is one of the most prominent experts of historical harps and harp playing, and some of his knowledge is communicated to the listener in the programme notes.

I strongly commend this disc which is as ground-breaking as it was when released in the early 1990s. It is excellent news that this splendid recording is available again … and at budget price. Don't miss it!

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

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