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"Songs without words"

Adam Woolf, sackbuta; Nicholas Milne, viola da gambab; Eligio Luis Quinteiro, theorboc; Siobhán Armstrong, harpd; Kathryn Cok, harpsichorde, organf

rec: Nov 31 - Dec 3, 2009, London, Church of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood
sfzmusic - LC-18271 (© 2010) (60'30")
Liner-notes: E

Giovanni BASSANO (1560/61-1617): Liquide perle amor (Marenzio)ae; Dario CASTELLO (1st half 17th C): Sonata IIaf [3]; Jacob VAN EYCK (1589/90-1657): Pavaen lachrymaea [8]; Giovanni Battista FONTANA (1589-1630): Sonata VIacf [7]; Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Canzon IIIaf [2]; Canzon IVabe [2]; Canzon detta la Superbaaf [2]; Se l'aura spiraabcde [4]; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): Laudate Dominumacdef [6]; Diego ORTIZ (c1510-c1570): Recercada Iac [1]; Recercada Iabcdf (arr Adam Woolf); Recercada IIbd [1]; Cipriano DE RORE (1515/16-1565)/arr Adam WOOLF: Anchor che col partireaf; Pierre SANDRIN (c1490-1560)/arr Adam WOOLF: Doulce mémoiread; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): O Jesu, nomen dulce (SWV 308)acd [5]

Sources: [1] Diego Ortiz, Trattado de glosas sobre clausulas y otros generos de puntos en la musica de violones, 1553; [2] Girolamo Frescobaldi, Il primo libro delle canzoni per sonare con ogni sorte di stromenti, 1628; [3] Dario Castello, Sonate concertate in stil moderno per sonar nel organo overo spineta con diversi instrumenti … libro secondo, 1629; [4] Girolamo Frescobaldi, Primo libro d'arie musicali per cantarsi, 1630; [5] Heinrich Schütz, Kleine Geistliche Konzerte, II, 1639; [6] Claudio Monteverdi, Selva morale e spirituale, 1640/41; [7] Giovanni Battista Fontana, Sonate a 1. 2. 3. per il violino, o cornetto, fagotto, chitarone, violoncino o simile altro istromento, 1641; [8] Jacob van Eyck, Der Fluyten Lust-hof, I, 1649

The sackbut - as the instrument of the renaissance and baroque is called which we now know as the trombone - played an important role in the 16th and 17th centuries. Used in an ensemble of 'cornetts and sackbuts', it provided support to singers or served to replace one or more of them. That was especially the case in liturgical music. Like the cornett it was used in purely instrumental music in the early 17th century. But there is hardly any music from this period which was specifically written for it. In his liner-notes Adam Woolf quotes Michael Praetorius, the German composer and theorist, who referred to a sackbut player as "being able to execute rapid coloraturas and jumps on his instrument just as is done on the viola bastarda and the cornett". The French theorist Marin Mersenne writes about sackbut players who "play diminutions just as trumpets and all other wind instruments". Woolf then rightly asks: if sackbut players apparently had opportunities to show off their virtuosic capabilities, what exactly did they play?

One answer is: ensemble music. A number of instrumental pieces by Italian composers from the first half of the 17th century had parts for sackbut which show the same amount of virtuosity as parts for violin or cornett. As a member of the Caecilia-Concert Woolf himself has played several of such pieces. Examples can be found on their disc Schmelzer & Co. I can't see any reason why Praetorius or Mersenne must have referred to playing of pieces for sackbut solo. On the other hand, it is remarkable that hardly any solo pieces have come down to us. It is quite plausible that sackbut players performed pieces which were originally intended for other instruments or pieces without a specific indication of the instrument.

A part of the programme is devoted to such pieces. The Sonata II by Dario Castello is written for a treble instrument, like the violin, the cornett or the recorder. Performance by the tenor sackbut requires transposition, but that was something of which any player of that time was capable. The Sonata VI by by Fontana is from the composer's only collection of instrumental music. Although he was a violinist by profession, he indicates that the sonatas are for violin, cornett, bassoon, chitarrone, violoncino "or another similar instrument". Such formulas are hard to interpret correctly. It is a bit too easy to take this as an excuse to play the treble part of such a piece at the sackbut. The chitarrone is also mentioned, but I doubt that anyone of deploying this as an argument for playing the piece on the chitarrone with basso continuo. Whether such pieces were performed by sackbut players has to remain an open question.

But then, the programme as a whole can't be judged from a strictly historical point of view. It is very unlikely, for instance, that sackbut players will have played pieces from Jacob van Eyck's collection Der Fluyten Lust-hof. It is questionable, for instance, how many copies of this collection of music for solo recorder have found their way outside the Netherlands. And within the Netherlands music making was largely restricted to the private homes of aristocrats and citizens, and it seems quite unlikely that this included playing the sackbut. Also questionable is the instrumental performance of solo concertos for voice and basso continuo. In the renaissance it was quite common to perform vocal parts with instruments, but at that time the focus was not on the text. That is different in the first half of the 17th century. That makes the performance of pieces like Monteverdi's Laudate Dominum and Schütz's O Jesu, nomen dulce historically not very plausible. That said, I would be very happy if any singer would perform these sacred concertos in the way Adam Woolf plays them. In his liner-notes he emphasizes the need to pay attention to the text, even if a piece is performed instrumentally. That is exactly what he does, and some singers could learn from his example. It is just a shame the booklet doesn't include the lyrics of these pieces.

Specifically interesting are the items in which Woolf demonstrates the technique of divisions: the addition of ornaments to one or more lines from a vocal piece. He plays such divisions by Bassano over Luca Marenzio's madrigal Liquide perle Amor, and follows that example in his own divisions over Doulce mémoire by Pierre Sandrin and Anchor che col partire by Cipriano de Rore. Diego Ortiz wrote a famous treatise on the art of playing divisions. Although this was firstly intended for playing the viola da gamba, its importance goes far beyond that. It is interesting to hear some of Ortiz' pieces from this book at the sackbut.

From what I have written one may conclude that this programme is historically questionable as far as the choice of repertoire is concerned. To a large extent this is inevitable as we just don't know exactly what music sackbut players performed. It is Adam Woolf's virtue that he has almost single-handedly put the sackbut as a solo instrument on the map. Almost: the other performers on this disc have a fair share in the quality of this disc. Despite my remarks about the choice of music I have the greatest admiration for the achievement of this ensemble. The technical prowess of Adam Woolf and his colleagues is impressive. The Italian cornettist Luigi Zenobi wrote: "The players of the sackbut are judged by their correct intonation, by their soft tone, by their avoiding a mooing sound (...)". Those qualities fully apply to Adam Woolf as well.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Adam Woolf

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