musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"bassi - Toccate, Canzoni, Chiaccone per il Violone e altri Bassi"

United Continuo Ensemble

rec: Nov 5 - 7, 2011, Altrandstädt, Schloßkirche
Pan Classics - PC 10272 (© 2012) (67'14")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Bellerofonte CASTALDI (1581-1649): Cromatica corrente [4]; Fulminante galliarda [4]; Tastegio soave [4]; Giuseppe COLOMBI (1635-1694): Chiaccona; Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Canzona IV a due bassi [6]; Canzona VII detta la Superba, a basso solo [6]; Canzona XIV detta la Marina, a due bassi [6]; Canzona XV detta la Lieuoratta, a due bassi [6]; Canzona XVI detta la Samminiata, a due bassi [6]; Adam JARZEBSKI (1590-1649): Köni[g]sberga [5]; Julio DA MODENA (Julio SEGNI) (1498-1561): Recercar X [1]; Diego ORTIZ (1510-1570): Recercada I sobre Doulce memoire [2]; Domenico PELLEGRINI (?-after 1682): Courante per la X [8]; Francesco ROGNONI TAEGIO (1570-1626): Susanna d'Orlando, modo di passegiar per il violone over trombone alla bastarda [3]; Bartolomeo DE SELMA Y SALAVERDE (c1580-c1638): Fantasia per Basso solo [7]; Giovanni Battista VITALI (1632-1692): Bergamasca per la Lettera B [9]; Capritio sopra ono figure (arr E. Nisini) [9]; Passa Galli per la Lettera E [9]; Ruggiero per la Lettera B [89]; Toccata, Chiacona per la Lettera B [9]

Sources: [1] Jacques Moderne (ed), Musique de Ioye, 1550; [2] Diego Ortiz, Tratado de glosas, 1553; [3] Francesco Rognoni Taegio, Selva de vari passaggi, 1620; [4] Bellerofonte Castaldi, Caprici a due stromenti cioe tiorba e tiorbino e per sonar solo varie sorti di balli e fantasticarie, 1622; [5] Adam Jarzebski, Canzoni e Concerti, 1627; [6] Girolamo Frescobaldi, Il primo libro delle canzoni a una, due, tre e quattro voci, 1628; [7] Bartolomeo de Selma y Salaverde, Canzoni fantasie et correnti da suonar, 1638; [8] Domenico Pellegrini, Armoniosi concerti sopra la chitarra spagnola, 1650; [9] Giovanni Battista Vitali, Partite sopre diverse Sonate per il Violone, 1692

Jörg Meder, violone; Adrian Rovatkay, dulcian; Ercole Nisini, sackbut; Axel Wolf, theorbo; Thor-Harald Johnsen, lute, theorbo, guitar; Bernward Jaime Rudolph, guitar; Zita Mikijanska, harpsichord, organ; Kay Kalytta, percussion

Recently I reviewed the disc La Nascita del Violoncello, recorded by the cellist Bruno Cocset and his ensemble Les Basses Réunis. I mentioned the lack of standardization of instruments and the names which they were given, and the fact that in the first half of the 17th century no less than 24 different words were used for a bass string instrument. It is not quite clear when the instrument we call the cello came into existence, but it seems pretty unlikely that bass parts written before about 1650 were played on this instrument. If composers specified a string bass they often mentioned the violone. Which instrument exactly they referred to is not totally clear either. In his liner-notes to the present disc Jörg Meder writes that Diego Ortiz uses the word violone for the viola da gamba, whereas in the early 17th century in Italy it was used for various bass string instruments, first as an 8-foot and later as a 16-foot instrument.

Often the composers simply left it to the performers to choose the instrument on which to play a bass part. This disc presents a number of pieces for a low instrument with basso continuo. Sometimes the choice is pretty obvious: Ortiz wrote his treatise for gambists in the first place, and therefore the performance of his Recercada I sobre Doulce memoire is the most plausible. The Fantasia per Basso solo by Bartolomeo de Selma y Salaverde is played at the dulcian - also a logical choice, as the composer was himself a professional player of that instrument. It is a highly virtuosic piece which reflects his own skills.

Frescobaldi also left the choice of instruments to the performers. The Canzona XVI detta la Samminiata is played here with sackbut and dulcian, the Canzona XV detta la Lieuoratta with violone and dulcian. These work quite well, far better than the combination of theorbo and dulcian in the Canzona IV a due bassi. The two bass parts are of equal importance, but the theorbo is no match for the dulcian. The Canzona XIV detta la Marina is again played with violone and sackbut, which is fine, if the performers wouldn't have taken the bad decision to add percussion. That is not the only piece they do so. The United Continuo Ensemble is another specimen of a group which has fallen victim to the contagious disease which I elsewhere diagnosed as percussionitis. In the whole programme on this disc I can't see any piece where the addition of percussion could be justified. In addition to the use of percussion where it is not needed the plucked instruments are often also used as such. The scoring of the basso continuo in several pieces is too heavy. A large continuo group can be appropriate in the theatre, but in this music it is not required.

A number of pieces are also arranged in several ways. There is no fundamental objection against arrangements, as long as they are plausible from a historical point of view, musically tasteful and don't damage the character of the original. That is often not the case here. The arrangement for three bass instruments of Castaldi's Cromatica corrente was a particularly bad idea. It doesn't sound well and the subtlety of this piece, originally written for a plucked instrument, is lost. Castaldi's music sounds much better when played on the theorbo, as the other two pieces by him show. In two pieces for one bass instrument two instruments play in turn (and unisono in some passages) which is an example of a practice which seems historically extremely implausible: Chiaccona by Giuseppe Colombi and Vitali's Ruggiero per la Lettera B. It is questionable whether in the compositions by Vitali the violone is the most appropriate instrument to play the bass parts. In the liner-notes to his recording Bruno Cocset states that the word violone in the title of Vitali's collection of 1692 refers to the basse de violon.

There is no doubt that the members of the United Continuo Ensemble are very fine artists. Without exception they play their parts brilliantly. If only they had used their skills for a better cause. The music on this disc sounds best when played as the composer wrote it down. The performers probably think it sounds better if they adapt it to their own taste. It doesn't.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

United Continuo Ensemble

CD Reviews