musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

"A Venetian Dream"

Cappella Mediterranea/Leonardo García-Alarcón
concert: Feb 12, 2014, Utrecht, Vredenburg Leeuwenbergh

Giulio CACCINI (1551-1618): Amarilli, mia bella; Dalla porta d'oriente; Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676): Gli Amori d'Apollo e di Dafne (Lamento de Procris); Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Cosi mi disprezzate; Se l'aura spira; Ti lascio anima mia; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): Ohimè, ch'io cado; Voglio di vita uscir; Barbara STROZZI (1619-1677): Che se può fare; Lagrime mie

Mariana Flores, soprano; Margaux Blanchard, viola da gamba; Quito Gato, lute, guitar, percussion; Leonardo García-Alarcón, harpsichord, organ

Few music is so exciting as what was written in the early decades of the 17th century in Italy. Vocal and instrumental virtuosity and a focus on the exposition of the affetti, reflecting the emotions expressed in a text, are the main features of the stile nuovo as it was labelled. No wonder that so many performers and ensembles feel attracted to this repertoire. The number of recordings bears witness to that. The repertoire is huge, but some pieces return time and again in programmes of concerts and recordings. One would wish for a more adventurous programming. The concert of the Cappella Mediterranea was a mixture of the famous and the lesser-known.

The pieces by Giulio Caccini belong to the first category. The programme opened with an evergreen, Amarilli, mia bella, which is more or less a symbol of the 'new style'. Caccini was also its first and main advocate. Dalla porte d'oriente is also fairly well-known; it was disappointing that several stanzas were omitted. This is a bad habit for which I can't see any justification.

Girolamo Frescobaldi was the next composer on the programme. He is mainly known for his keyboard music, but he also wrote a considerable number of vocal pieces. A contemporary stated that he didn't understand texts, and that his wife had to explain their meaning to him. Either she has done a great job or said contemporary didn't know what he was talking about, because there is nothing wrong with Frescobaldi's setting of texts. Se l'aura spira and Cosi mi disprezzate are very well-known and are frequently performed. Both are strophic, and I noticed that Mariana Flores took considerable rhythmic freedom which sometimes gave the impression that she was out of sync with the basso continuo. Ti lascio, anima mia is through-composed and here the singer needs to follow the rhythm of the text rather than that of the music. So did Ms Flores and she delivered an expressive performance.

In various pieces she made use of gesturing. I wonder whether that was appropriate. It certainly was in the last item of the first part, probably the highlight of the concert. It was the Lamento de Procris from Francesco Cavalli's opera Gli Amori d'Apollo e di Dafne. Lamentos were highly popular at the time, and that is understandable as they are full of emotions. This gives the composer plenty of opportunities to explore the possibilities of exposing the affetti. Mariana Flores gave an incisive and dramatic performance. One of the ideals of the stile nuovo, which was especially expressed by Giulio Caccini, was a way of singing which is known as recitar cantando, speech-like singing. Over the years I have attended many concerts and heard many recordings where the performers failed to live up to this ideal. Here it was convincingly practised: the text was in the centre and was delivered with great rhythmic freedom. Also notable was the strong dynamic shading, including the messa di voce which is such an important instrument in the performance of this kind of repertoire.

The second part was devoted to two composers, Claudio Monteverdi and Barbara Strozzi. Ohimè, ch'io cado is one of Monteverdi's best-known compositions. It is a strophic piece which was again performed with greater rhythmic liberty than I can remember from performances I have heard before. Lesser-known is Volgio di vita uscir, a piece with a pretty gloomy text, based on a basso ostinato, another frequently-used device at the time.

Barbara Strozzi has attracted much attention from performers, not least because she is one of the very few female composers before the 19th century. However, it is the quality of the music which is decisive, and in this case the attention is fully justified as her compositions belong to the most expressive of the 17th century. Lagrime mie and Che si puo fare are two superb examples of her compositional skills and her capability to translate a text into music. Mariana Flores fully explored the emotions which are exposed here, in a truly speech-like manner, with strong dynamic contrasts and appropriate ornamentation, all for the benefit of the text and the affetti.

Having praised the performances I can't avoid adding some critical comments. First of all, as much as I think that the use of dynamic shading in this repertoire is absolutely right and often required, I wonder whether Mariana Flores sometimes exaggerated. Singing forte doesn't imply screaming at full power. I found her dynamic shading sometimes too undifferentiated, too often fortissimo. In my view it was rather artificial, and not naturally flowing from the musical development. It is probably due to the acoustic of the hall that those passages didn't come off that well.

Secondly, the instrumentalists made too much fuss in the basso continuo. It distracted from the harmony and rhythm which are very important in this repertoire. Quito Gato operated some percussion with his feet. I know from his recordings that García-Alarcon is contaminated with percussionitis, so it was to be expected. However, I couldn't find any justification for its use in any of the pieces on the programme. He may think that it makes the performances more interesting or expressive, but in my experience the opposite is the case.

This brings me to the most serious issue. The performances clearly aimed at communicating the emotions of the text as they were expressed by the various composers. Such emotions are not just communicated during the performance, but also afterwards. When a piece has come to an end, the emotions need time to sink in, especially as many pieces end on a highly emotional note. But the performers didn't give the music the time to make a lasting impression. The most striking example was Strozzi's Lagrime mie which has a particularly sad and emotional ending. When the last chord died down the atmosphere was roughly disturbed by the instrumentalists who started their prelude to the next piece. I felt that this habit nullified their efforts of communicating the affetti. There must be a better way to avoid every single piece being applauded by the audience, if that was the motivation for this practise.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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