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Singing with a viol

[I] "Segreti Accenti - Italian Renaissance Music"
Cantar alla Viola
rec: May 2014, Poblet (ES)
Quartz Music - QTZ 2125 (© 2017) (66'49")
Liner-notes: E; no lyrics
Cover & track-list

ANDREA da Firenze (fl c1415): Amor, i' mi lamento; Marco Antonio CAVAZZONI (c1490-1560): Ricercare 2° tono; Costanzo FESTA (c1485-1545): Altro non e'il mi' amor; Madonn'io mi consumo et pel grave dolor; Se mai vedet' amanti; FRANCESCO da Milano (1497-1543): Ricercare VII; Silvestro GANASSI (1492-1550): Io vorrei Dio d'amore; Luzzasco LUZZASCHI (1545-1607): Aura soave; Ch'io non t'ami; O primavera; Luca MARENZIO (c1553-1599): Ahime che col fuggire; Al primo vostro sguardo; Alma che fai; Amor tien il suo regno; Con la fronte fiorita; Dicemi la mia stella; Lasso non è cor mio; Le rose fronde e fiori; Magister PIERO (c1300-1380): Chavalcando con un giovine accorto; Ogni diletto; Luis VENEGAS DE HENESTROSA (1510-1570): Mort m'a privé par sa cruelle (Crecquillon)

Sources: Silvestro Ganassi, Lettione seconda, 1543; Costanzo Festa, Il primo libro de madrigali a tre voci, 1556; Luca Marenzio, Il primo libro delle villanelle a tre voci, 1586; Luzzasco Luzzaschi, Madrigali per cantare et sonare a uno, e doi, e tre soprani, 1601

Nadine Balbeisi, soprano; Fernando Marín, vielle, vihuela de arco, viola da gamba

[II] "The Art of the Vihuela de Arco"
Fernando Marín, vihuela de arco
rec: April 2017, Ulldemolins (Tarragona, ES), Santuari de la mare de Deu de Loreto
Da Vinci Classics - C00037 (40'02")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

anon: Eia ergo; Antonio DE CABEZÓN (1510-1566): Fabordón del 1. tono; Fabordón del 3. tono; Fabordón del 5° tono; Fabordón del 6° tono; Fabordón del 7° tono; Mort m'a privé par sa cruelle (Crecquillon); Para quien crié yo cabellos; Silvestro GANASSI (1492-1550): Recerchar I; Recerchar II; Recerchar III; Recerchar IV; Diego ORTIZ (c1510-c1570): Recercada I; Recercada I sobre el Passamezzo antiguo; Recercada II; Recercada II sobre el Passamezzo moderno; Recercada III; Recercada III sobre el Passamezzo moderno; Recercada IV; Recercada IV sobre La Folía; Recercada V sobre el Passamezzo antiguo

Sources: Buxheimer Orgelbuch, 1460/70; Silvestro Ganassi, Regola Rubertina, Regola che insegna sonar de viola d'archo, 1542; Diego Ortiz, Tratado de Glosas, 1553; Hernando de Cabezón, ed., Obras de música para tecla, arpa y vihuela, 1578

It is remarkable that in recent years several discs have been released which take the treatises of Silvestro Ganassi as their starting point. The ensembles Doulce Mémoire and Le Concert Brisé focused on Opera intitulata Fontegara of 1535, which is devoted to the art of diminution. This was also one of the sources of inspiration for the ensemble arcimboldo, but for its recording it also turned to the two other treatises by Ganassi, Regola rubertina (1542) and Lettione seconda (1543), which are instructions on the playing of the viola da gamba. Whereas the ensemble arcimboldo included a number of madrigals of the 16th century, performed by one singer and a consort of viols, the ensemble Cantar alla Viola looks at largely the same repertoire from a slighty different angle: a performance of polyphonic madrigals by one voice and one string instrument. The name of the ensemble is its programme and refers to a then common practice: "singing with a viol".

The liner-notes refer to the courtier, diplomat and author Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1528), who, in his book Il Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier), "points out that among all musical practices, the best and most suitable for a perfect courtier was indeed cantare alla viola." He states that this way of performing allows to appreciate the 'sweetness' of the solo voice. In such a way of performance, it is the duty of the player of the 'viola' to arrange the remaining voices for his instrument. Ganassi mentions this practice in the treatises mentioned above. He states that sometimes the voices of a polyphonic piece either need to be reduced or to be extended.

Performing vocal parts on the 'viola' is not just a technical matter. The strings "that are the most consonant are able to sustain the harmony as well as the texts and such". The latter indicates that the player of the 'viola' has to be aware of the text and its meaning. Ganassi compares the player with an orator, who has to communicate the "effects put into the music through the words". "In order to create the effect of sad or 'afflicted' music, one must move the bow in a slurred way, even shaking the bow, while the left hand should be used in a way of 'making a movement and giving spirit' to the instrument relative to that which the music requires. Happy music should be struck by the bow in a way proper to such music. (Regola Rubertin, chap. II, f. VI)" (booklet) Considering this aspect, it is very regrettable that the booklet omits the lyrics of the pieces performed here. This way the connection between the text and the performance on the 'viola' escapes the listener.

I have put the word 'viola' here between quotation marks, because it does not refer to a specific instrument, but rather a string instrument of a lower range in general. The whole issue which instruments were exactly meant with the 'viola' is quite complicated anyway. Obviously, the instrument we know as viola da gamba is the most logical option. However, on this disc Fernando Marín mostly plays two different bowed vihuelas (vihuelas de arco). In the liner-notes to his disc specifically devoted to this instrument, Marín refers to the theorist Johannes Tinctoris, who in his treatise De interventione et usu musicae, 1481/83) mentions the Spanish origin of this instrument in order to distinguish it from other fiddles of the period. He emphasizes that the vihuela de arco "was conceived in an era in which the sound of vocal polyphony and the timbre of the human voice were the ideal model, well before the inxdependent development of instrumental music". In the paragraph on 'Sources for the musical practice of the vihuela de arco' he mentions Tinctoris, Ganassi and Diego Ortiz. Apparently he believes that the vihuela de arco could be one of the instruments which the sources refer to as 'viola', and that is was used in Italy, despite its Spanish origins. I would like more specific information about this issue.

In addition to pieces from the 16th century, the performers have included three medieval items, by Andrea da Firenze and Magister Piero respectively. These are ballades for two voices, which mean that the vielle used here does not have to adapt several parts. This part of the programme is not specifically discussed in the liner-notes. Those pieces did not indicate the instrument(s) to be used, and they could also be performed with a different instrument, such as a lute or a transverse flute. In that respect they cannot be considered early examples of cantar alla viola.

The performance practice demonstrated here is not very common, and therefore this disc is of great importance. Nadine Balbeisi is the ideal interpreter of the vocal parts. She is very much aware of the different styles within the programme, as she makes a clear distinction between the medieval pieces and those of the (late) 16th century, for instance with regard to dynamics and the treatment of the text. Fernando Marín shows that he not only has a thorough understanding of the instruments and the way they have to be played, but knows how to bring the repertoire to life.

In short, this is a highly compelling disc, which deserves a strong recommendation.

I already referred to Fernando Marín's disc devoted to the vihuela de arco. It seems useful to turn to this disc at the end of this review, even though the repertoire is rather different from what is on the Cantar alla Viola disc. Here Marín demonstrates at length the use of the vihuela de arco with pieces mainly from Spanish sources by Antonio de Cabezón and Diego Ortiz. The latter is one of the theorists of the art of diminution, especially on the viola da gamba, whereas the pieces by Cabezón were intended for keyboard, with the vihuela de mano (the plucked vihuela) and the harp as alternatives. This disc shows that their music does very well on the strung vihuela. This instrument is pre-eminently suitable to play polyphonically. That is also demonstrated on two previous discs of Cantar alla Viola with Spanish vocal music of the 16th century, "La viola d'arc a la Corona d'Arago" and music by Juan de Castro.

It is regrettable that the playing time is rather short. However, that should not prevent anyone interested in renaissance music to add it to his collection. It is one of the very few that is entirely devoted to the art of playing the vihuela de arco. It is to be hoped that it will lead to an increasing interest in this fascinating instrument.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Cantar alla Viola

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