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"Philippe Verdelot - Sylvestro Ganassi: Madrigali Diminuiti"

Doulce Mémoire
Dir: Denis Raisin Dadre

rec: March 2016, Chambord, Château Chambord
Ricercar - RIC 371 (© 2016) (67'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Padouana della Ragione; Padouana La Ternarina; Pacientia ognom mi dice; Se a vostra voglia; Melchiore DE BARBERIIS (fl c1545-1550): Fantasia sopra se mai provasti; Madonna qual certezza; Filipo DE LURANO (c1470-after 1520): Aldi donna non dormire; Bartolomeo TROMBONCINO (c1470-c1535): Nunqua fu pena magiore; Philippe VERDELOT (1480/85-1530/32?): Ardenti miei sospiri; Donna che sete tra le belle bella; Dormendo un giorno; Igno soave; In me cresce l'ardore; Madonna qual certezza; Tutto il di piango

Clara Coutouly, soprano; Denis Raisin Dadre, recorder; Bérengère Sardin, harp; Sébastien Wonner, spinet, clavicytherium

One of the most famous treatises of the renaissance period is La Fontegara, which was written by Sylvestro Ganassi, who published it himself in 1535. The frontispiece of the disc reviewed here could suggest that it includes madrigals by Philippe Verdelot with diminutions by Ganassi. However, the latter was not a composer, but a performing musician. The treatise also does not include any piece with diminutions from Ganassi's pen. What we have here is a sequence of pieces by Verdelot and some other composers with diminutions, which are improvised by the members of Doulce Mémoire, in accordance with the practice of the time and Ganassi's instructions.

Ganassi was born in Venice in 1492, where his father worked as a barber. However, he was also a musician, a sonador, and so was Sylvestro's brother Giovanni. Apparently his two other brothers were also musicians: the frontispiece of the treatise shows all four - Giovanni, Venturin, Girolamo and Sylvestro - together with the latter's son Battista, who was a cornett player.

La Fontegara is in fact a treatise on playing the recorder, Sylvestro's own instrument. It includes information about things like fingerings and articulations for the instrument. An engraving shows various recorders by different instrument makers from Venice. The book also shows tables of divisions of intervals which, as Denis Raisin Dadre states in his liner-notes, were common at the time and also appear in other treatises. "La Fontegara is unique, however, in that it postulates four rules (regole) for divisions that are based on a proportional system inherited from the Middle Ages. These rules are simply a way of dividing up the basic theme: in the first rule, it is divided into four, in the second by five, in the third by six and in the fourth by seven. Such a system created extraordinarily complex rhythms and the specialised skills needed to play them: according to the first rule the divisions of the theme could be made with sixteen semiquavers, but according to the fourth rule its divisions would entail twenty-eight semiquavers." Ganassi then explains how to play diminutions, illustrated by examples.

As I said above, the treatise does not include written-out diminutions of compositions from Ganassi's time. Then what did he and other performers play? Venice was a centre of music printing, so they didn't have to look far. The first printed edition came from the press in 1501: the famous Odhecaton, which was an anthology of mostly vocal pieces by composers from the Franco-Flemish school, such as Josquin, Obrecht and La Rue. In the early decades of the 16th century this repertoire was increasingly considered outdated and replaced by frottolas, which represented the most popular form of secular vocal music in Italy at that time. That is also reflected by several collections of lute tablatures, which were printed around 1510. One of the main composers of such repertoire was Bartolomeo Tromboncino (Nunqua fu pena magiore). But at the time Ganassi's treatise was published, this genre was gradually overshadowed by the madrigal. In 1530 the first book with madrigals by several authors was published in Rome. It included pieces by Philippe Verdelot.

He is considered a pioneer of this genre. Unfortunately next to nothing is known about his career. His family name is derived from the place where he was born, which is in northern France. He must have moved to Italy fairly early, but it is not known exactly when. It seems that he was in Venice in the first decade of the 16th century; later he was in Bologna and Rome. In 1521 he arrived in Florence; here he was given the two most prestigious positions in the city: maestro di cappella at the baptistry of S Maria del Fiore and at the cathedral. Here he died between 1530 and 1532.

In 1533 his first book of madrigals was printed in Venice by Andrea Antico. In total 147 madrigals are attributed to Verdelot, but a number of them are of doubtful authenticity. In the 1520s some pieces by him were included in anthologies; these are a mixture of elements of the frottola and the madrigal. Raisin Dadre writes that he made a choice from "the first madrigals of the 1530s". New Grove includes a list of Verdelot's madrigals; it shows that most of those included here are from the above-mentioned book of four-part madrigals of 1533 and from the first book of madrigals for five voices which appeared in 1536. However, there are also two pieces which were included in anthologies which were published in 1541 and 1546 respectively.

The pieces are performed in various ways. Mostly we hear first a performance of the madrigal in its original form: the upper voice is sung, the other parts are played. Sometimes the soprano adds diminutions; Ganassi indicated that the divisions as explained in his treatise, can also be applied to a vocal line. This is then followed by the same piece, played on the recorder, with diminutions by Raisin Dadre. In other cases the recorder plays colla voce: the soprano sings the upper voice unaltered, whereas the recorder regularly adds diminutions. There are also pieces where voice and recorder take care of different parts: the soprano sings the upper voice, the recorder plays the second voice, again with diminutions. In the last piece in the programme, the anonymous Pacientia ognom mi dice, we first hear the soprano, then the recorder, next both together and lastly the soprano alone, with the three chordal instruments.

In his liner-notes Raisin Dadre refers to the concept of sprezzatura: "a type of studied nonchalance that gives the impression that all one's deeds are without apparent effort and almost without conscious thought". Various sources indicate that this was considered "the principal characteristic of excellence in art". This should be the guiding principle in any performance. "It is clear, therefore, that modern players should shun all affectation; this creates a style of playing that never stresses technical difficulties and, I trust, will not make you aware of the unbelievable complexity of the ornamentation." Having listened to this disc I am happy to say that he succeeds with flying colours. This disc is no demonstration of technical prowess, but a model of sound music making. The diminutions are virtuosic and extended, but never give the impression of being exaggerated or unnatural. The flow of the music is always kept alive. The singing of Clara Coutouly is wonderful; she finds exactly the right way to interpret these madrigals. She has a very nice and flexible voice which is perfectly suited to add diminutions in the style of Ganassi. The players of the plucked instruments are excellent as well; they can be heard independently in some instrumental pieces by Melchior de Barberis and anonymous composers.

Considering that La Fontegara has often been considered a purely theoretical work this disc is of major importance in showing, that the ideas of Ganassi can actually be put into practice which - in the hands of fine musicians as the members of Doulce Mémoire - results in a musically compelling recital.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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