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Concert reviews

"Lagrime Amare"

Scherzi Musicali/Nicolas Achten
concert: May 10, 2012, Utrecht, Vredenburg Leeuwenbergh

Johann Hieronymus KAPSBERGER (1580-1651): Toccata prima; Stefano LANDI (1590-1639): Superbi colli e voi; Domenico MAZZOCCHI (1592-1665): Dunque ove tł Signor (Compuntione nel veder Gierusalemme, o rammentarsi la morte di Christo); Fortunato su'l volto; La catena d'Adone, opera in a prologue and 5 acts (exc); Lagrime Amare (La Madalena ricorre alle lagrime); Non ha pił loco; Padre del Ciel (In tribulatione positi verba sunt ista); Piangete, occhi, piangete (Dovemo piangere la Passione di N.S.); Vide nel mezzo dell ombrosa notte (Per il santissimo natale); Luigi ROSSI (1597-1653): Passacaglia; Michelangelo ROSSI (1601-1656): Toccata VII

Marie De Roy, soprano; Reinoud Van Mechelen, tenor; Nicolas Achten, baritone, theorbo, keyboard; Eriko Semba, viola da gamba, lirone; Sarah Ridy, triple harp

Love and lament - those are two of the most frequent subjects of baroque music in general and of Italian 17th-century music in particular. They look like opposites, but in fact they are strongly connected. In many compositions tears are the result of intense love, and especially if the relationship goes sour. Another feature is the parallellism of love and lament in secular and sacred music. In the latter it is especially the passion of Jesus which has made composers to write laments. In Italy, where the veneration of Mary was especially strong under the influence of Counter Reformation, the laments of Jesus' mother about the passion and death of her son were inspiring many composers to write some of their best music.

Love and lament were the subjects of the programme which the Belgian ensemble Scherzi Musicali performed in a series of concerts in the Netherlands and Belgium, under the appropriate title Lagrime Amare, "bitter tears". It was composed around the figure of Domenico Mazzocchi, a lesser-known composer of the early 17th-century. He was a contemporary of Francesco Cavalli which means that he belongs to the generation after Monteverdi. This is reflected in his music: the strict adherence to the supremacy of the text makes way to a stronger interest in melody. In his work we find the first rudiments of what was to become the aria.

The first part of the programme was devoted to secular music. We heard large extracts from Mazzocchi's opera La catena d'Adone which Scherzi Musicali has recorded recently for the Alpha label. I hope to review that recording in due course on this site. The extracts were such that I am looking forward to hearing that opera. It became crystal clear that Mazzocchi knows how to tell a story in music, and that the interpreters know how to perform it. Marie De Roy, Reinoud Van Mechelen and Nicolas Achten gave a fine performance, which reflected the ideal of Mazzocchi's time, known as recitar cantando, 'speechlike singing'. Also impressive was the addition of a wide range of ornaments. In addition to his opera we heard two solo pieces by Mazzocchi, Superbi colli e voi, a piece in monodic style by Stefano Landi, and the famous Toccata VII by Michelangelo Rossi. Here he shows the same sense of experiment as other composers in their vocal or ensemble music. This toccata is especially remarkable for the sequences of heavy dissonants, which are the result of Rossi exploring the expressive qualities of mean-tone temperament to the full. Nicolas Achten played it excellently.

The second part of the programme was devoted to pieces of a sacred nature. These were all written on Italian texts, which is an indication that they were not intended for liturgical use, but rather for social gatherings of the aristocracy. Vide nel mezzo dell ombrosa notte refers to Christmas. It is a dialogue in which the day complaints about the night being the time that the light of Christ's birth appears. Padre del Ciel is a prayer to God, and the last three pieces were all related to the Passion of Christ. The intensity of the affetti in this repertoire was perfectly expressed, not only by the three singers, but also through the contributions of the instrumentalists. The lirone is invaluable in this kind of repertoire; it was beautifully played by Eriko Semba. Sarah Ridey delivered a penetrating and improvisatorial performance of Kapsberger's Toccata prima.

This ensemble which was founded in 2006 has received much praise for its performances. It was the first time I have heard it live, and my positive impressions from a concert I heard on Belgian radio were fully confirmed. The ensemble's director, Nicolas Achten, is a remarkable artist, as he not only sings, but also plays the theorbo and the keyboard, and often accompanies himself. He does so very well, and he sings and plays with the same amount of passion and intensity. He has brought together a fine group of musicians who delivered a most memorable concert. I hope they will return soon.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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