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Giovanni Girolamo KAPSPERGER (1580 - 1651): "Che fai tù? - Villanelles"

Les Kapsber'girls

rec: Sept 2017 & 2018, Evje (NO); Jan 2018, Vizelay, Cité de la Voix
muso - MU-037 (© 2020) (64'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Giovanni Girolamo KAPSPERGER: All'ombra [1]; Alla caccia [1]; Ardir [4]; Canarios [5]; Che fai tu? [2]; Cinta di rose [4]; Corrente I [5]; Corrente II [5]; Correte pescatori [1]; Figlio dormi [2]; Fulminate [3]; Gagliarda VIII [5]; In te la vita [4]; L'onda che limpida [2]; Lascivette pastorelle [1]; Non sa che dia solor' [2]; O fronte serena [2]; Passacaglia [5]; Ritornello [6]; Sonino [4]; Spiega spiega [3]; Toccata VII [5]; Trà queste [4]; Vedete la mia luce [1]; Giovanni Battista VITALI (1632-1692): Passa Galli [6]

Sources: Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger, [1] Libro primo di Villanelle à 1, 2 et 3 uoci accommodate per qualsiuoglia strumento con l'intavolatura del chitarone et alfabeto per la chitarra spagnola, 1610; [2] Secondo libro di villanelle, 1619; [3] Libro terzo di Villanelle a 1, 2, et 3 voci accomodate per qual si voglia stromenti con l'intavoloratura del Chitarone et alfabeto per la Chitarra Spagnola, 1619; [4] Libro Quarto di Villanelle a una e piu voci con l'alfabeto per la chitarra spagnola, 1623; [5] Libro quarto d'intavolatvra di chitarone, 1640; [6] Giovanni Battista Vitali, Partite sopra diverse Sonate (...) per il Violone, c1680

Alice Duport-Percier, soprano; Axelle Verner, mezzo-soprano; Barbara Hünninger, bass violin; Albane Imbs, archlute, tiorbino, theorbo, guitar

Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger - or Johann Hieronymus Kapsberger, the name which he was given at his birth - was one of the most famous players of the theorbo in Italy in the first half of the 17th century. He was born in Venice, moved to Naples where he married, and then settled in Rome. There he moved among the highest circles and enjoyed the protection of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, one of the members of the Barberini family, to which also belonged Pope Urban VIII, who was elected in 1623.

Today Kapsberger is mainly known for his music for his own instrument, but he was also a prolific writer of vocal works, both sacred and secular. These are written in the modern monodic style of his time. The theorist Athanasius Kircher praised his qualities in this department in his book Musurgia universalis (1650): "Hieronymus Kapsperger contributed various things to the Stylus Rezitativus, that are composed with the highest taste and the greatest practical knowledge, and certainly they are very worthy compositions, so that they are emulated by the musicians". Only a small number of vocal works are available on disc, which is rather surprising.

His vocal oeuvre comprises five printed editions of sacred works, to which one has to add some collections of which no printed edition is known. In 2010 Accent released a recording of I Pastori di Bettelemme, a dialogo posto in musica, which can be considered an early form of oratorio. As far as his secular music is concerned, fourteen editions of such works - madrigals, arias and villanellas - are known, of which a few have been lost. And again there seem to be some collections which have probably never been printed. The present disc focuses on a part of his secular music which has received even less attention than his vocal oeuvre in general: the villanella.

It is described in New Grove as "generic term applied at various times to popular songs that originated in Naples and flourished from about 1537 to about 1650". It is very likely that Kapsberger became acquainted with the genre during his sojourn in Naples, and this inspired him to contribute to the genre. He published no fewer than seven books of villanellas. The first was printed in 1610, the last in 1640. Villanellas are generally considered a 'popular' genre, which has little in common with the sophisticated and technically more demanding arie which are written in the monodic style. Villanellas are strophic, and as a result allow for less text expression, as the music has to fit different texts.

Even so, Kapsberger does not miss the opportunities to depict a particular passage. Two eloquent examples: Correte pescatori opens with the line "Run, fishermen, to the shores", and here the two voices follow each other at short distance and at a speedy tempo. Something comparable happens in the opening of Alla caccia: "Off to the hunt, shepherds." Whereas most villanellas don't include a strong amount of expression, Non sa che sia dolor' is of a more serious nature than others. The disc ends with a beautiful lullaby, Figlio dormi, which shows some similarity with Tarquinio Merula's famous Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna. The difference is that the latter is about baby Jesus, whereas Kapsberger's lullaby is a purely secular piece.

A notable feature of the villanellas is that, in addition to a basso continuo part, Kapsberger added an accompaniment notated in alfabeto. This is "is a system of notation specific to the baroque guitar in which a letter or sign corresponds, without hierarchic, ordinal or harmonic logic, to a position of the fingers on the fingerboard. It was devised to enable the performer to accompany a dessus (vocal or instrumental) without having, in theory, to refer to the rules of harmony or to a reading of the traditional clefs." This means that "the realisation of positions peculiar to the instrument comes before a strict adherence to the rules of harmony, a principle stemming directly from the popular tradition and one that was not going to displease our nonconformist composer." (booklet) Kapsberger was certainly not the only Italian composer to use this notational system.

The importance of this disc can hardly be overrated. It offers a fine survey of a part of Kapsberger's oeuvre that is injustly neglected. It is to be hoped that this will inspire other performers to delve into this rich source, not only of villanellas but of other parts of the composer's vocal oeuvre as well. The four members of Les Kapsber'girls show the way to approach this repertoire. The singing of Alice Duport-Percier (soprano) and Axelle Verner (mezzo-soprano) is a sheer delight. In every piece they hit the nail on the head, and as a result the character of each item comes off to the full. The accompaniment by Barbara Hünninger (bass violin) and Albane Imbs (theorbo, tiorbino and guitar) is spot-on and helps to communicate the content of each song. The vocal items are separated by pieces from the fourth book of pieces for the chitarrone of 1640, which are given excellent performances by Ms Imbs.

This is the first recording of Les Kapsber'girls, founded in 2015. May many more follow.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Les Kapsber'girls

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