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Concert reviews

Monteverdi Day

"Venetian violin sonatas"
Eva Saladin, violin; Johannes Keller, harpsichord
concert: Feb 22, 2020, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

Giovanni BASSANO (c1551-1617): Diminutions on Non ch'il duol mi scemi' (Rore); Dario CASTELLO (1600-1658): Sonata II [1629]; Giovanni Battista FONTANA (c1589-1630): Sonata I [1641]; Sonata II [1641]; Giovanni GABRIELI (1557-1612): Canzona; Biagio MARINI (1594-1663): Sonata IV [1629]; Claudio MERULO (1533-1604): Toccata [1598]; Eva SALADIN: Improvised diminutions on Pulchra es (Palestrina)

"Monteverdi's madrigals"
Le Nuove Musiche/Krijn Koetsveld
concert: Feb 22, 2020, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): [Libro IV] Io mi son giovinetta; La piaga c'ho nel cor; Ohim, se tanto amato; [Libro V] O Mirtillo, mirtill'anima mia; Che dar vi poss'io; M' pi dolce il penar; [Libro VI] A Dio, Florida bella; Lagrime d'amante al sepolcro dell'amata

Jennifer van der Hart, Wendy Roobol, soprano; Kaspar Krner, alto; Falco van Loon, tenor; Bas Ramselaar, bass; Cassandra Luckhardt, viola da gamba; Arjen Verhage, theorbo; Krijn Koetsveld, harpsichord

Monteverdi: Vespro per San Giovanni Battista Martire (ed. Marco Mencoboni)
Cantar Lontano/Marco Mencoboni
concert: Feb 22, 2020, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg

[versiculus] Deus in adiutorium; [antiphona] Isti sunt Sancti; [Salmo 109] Dixit Dominus (seconda); [mottectum] Laudate Dominum
[antiphona] Sancti per fidem*; [Salmo 110] Confitebor (terzo); [mottectum] Currite populi
[antiphona] Sanctorum velut aquilae*; [Salmo 111] Beatus vir (primo); [mottectum] Jubilet tota civitas (in dialogo)
[antiphona] Absterget Deus*; [Salmo 112] Laudate pueri (primo); [mottectum] Sonata sopra [Sancte Joanne]
[antiphona] In caelestibus regni*; [Salmo 115] Credidi; [mottectum] Iam moriar mi fili (Pianto della Madonna)
[himnus] Sanctorum meritis
[antiphona] Gaudent in caelis*; Magnificat (primo); [antiphona] Gaudent in caelis*
(*) plainchant

Anna Simboli, Alessandra Gardini, soprano; Marta Fumagalli, Elena Biscuola, contralto; Massimo Altieri, Riccardo Pisani, tenor; Gabriele Lombardi, Guglielmo Buonsanti, bass
Andrea Inghisciano, David Brutti, cornett; Fabio de Cataldo, Valerio Mazzuconi, David Yacus, sackbut; Anas Chen, Klodiana Babo, violin; Nika Zlataric, cello; Simone Vallerotonda, theorbo; Marco Mencoboni, harpsichord, organ; Giacomo Barchiesi, organ

Every year the Organisatie Oude Muziek, responsible for the Utrecht Festival Early Music, stages a day devoted to a particular composer, in January or February. In previous years, this event took place in Utrecht and Amsterdam respectively. This year it was extended to three days: the first, on Friday, was in Groningen, a town in the north of the Netherlands.

The composer of this year was Claudio Monteverdi. As everyone knows, he only composed vocal music. Even so, two concerts with instrumental music were given. The first was devoted to the theorbo, played by Fred Jacobs. He performed pieces by two of Monteverdi's contemporaries, Alessandro Piccinini and Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, both brilliant players of the theorbo or chitarrone, who have left a considerable corpus of pieces for their instrument. Unfortunately I was not able to attend this recital.

My first concert was the one in which Eva Saladin (violin) and Johannes Keller (harpsichord) presented music by some of the main composers of instrumental music of Monteverdi's time. Not all of them were violinists themselves, and not all the pieces were specifically intended for the violin. The main exception was Biagio Marini, who in one of his sonatas covers a range of more than three octaves, whereas one and a half was about the maximum at the time. The expression of human emotions (affetti) was the main aim of composers of vocal music, and Marini aimed at a translation of this ideal to the realm of instrumental music. His Sonata IV from his Op. 8 of 1629 requires a violin as it includes passages with double stopping. The sonata was one of the new instrumental genres in which the stile nuovo manifested itself. Apart from Marini's sonata, we heard specimens of this genre from the pen of Giovanni Battista Fontana and Dario Castello. An important genre, which has its roots in the late 16th century, before the new style emerged, was what is known as diminutions, divisions or - in Italian - passaggi. A player takes a line from a vocal work - a madrigal or a motet - and adds his own embellishments. Many such pieces were written at the time, for instance by Giovanni Bassano (Non ch'il duoi mi scerni, a madrigal by Cipriano de Rore), but was usually improvised. What has come down to us, for instance in treatises, is probably mostly the result of such improvisations. Eva Saladin demonstrated this practice by improvising diminutions on Palestrina's motet Pulchra es, which in Monteverdi's time was a favourite subject of such passaggi. Johannes Keller contributed two keyboard works, each of them representing a different genre, both rooted in the 16th century, but still popular in Monteverdi's time. The canzona (Giovanni Gabrieli) is based on vocal models. The toccata is a much freer form and has the character of an improvisation. Claudio Merulo's Toccata included in the programme, is an perfect example of this genre and its improvisatory character. Eva Saladin is a brilliant performer, and will be one of the artists in residence at this year's Utrecht Festival. The performances in this recital were quite expressive, but probably more restrained than one may be used to. One reason for this may be that Ms Saladin held the violin much lower than most of her colleagues, at the chest rather than the shoulder. This may have a considerable effect on how the music is performed and how it sounds.

The next concert was devoted to Monteverdi's madrigals. He wrote more than 200 of them, and his style developed with time. Whereas the first books include madrigals in the stile antico and are dominated by counterpoint, the later compositions in this genre are entirely inspired by the human emotions in the text. Here Monteverdi aims at depicting these affetti in his music. He makes use of musical figures to highlight words and phrases, and dissonants to illustrate particular tragic situations and sad thoughts. Some madrigals also include dramatic contrasts, very much like his operas. With his ensemble Le Nuove Musiche, Krijn Koetsveld recorded the entire madrigalian oeuvre by Monteverdi for Brilliant Classics. During this concert, he demonstrated the stylistic changes with madrigals from the fourth to the sixth book. The first, Io mi son giovinetta, is a relatively light-hearted piece, which reminds the listener of the canzonettas, the more 'popular' counterpart of the madrigal and very popular in the 16th century. Nothing of that is notable in the cycle Lagrime d'amante al sepolcro dell'amata, which ended the concert. In this work about the death of a loved one, Monteverdi pulls all the stops and fully explores the tools a composer of the seconda pratica had at his disposal. It was preceded by A Dio, Florida bella, an example of a madrigal of a theatrical nature. The five singers, sometimes supported by harpsichord, viola da gamba and theorbo, delivered incisive performances, in which the emotions of the text came off to good effect. How nice that the performers did not forget the importance of the messa di voce. There were some striking dynamic contrasts now and then, all in the interest of expression. In between, Krijn Koetsveld (harpsichord), Cassandra Luckhardt (viola da gamba) and Arjen Verhage (theorbo), showed how Tarquinio Merula, Girolamo Frescobaldi and Alessandro Piccinini respectively explored the technical and expressive possibilities of their instruments.

The evening concert, in the large hall of TivoliVredenburg, included sacred music. Marco Mencoboni had put together a Vesper service for St John the Baptist from the last collection of music which came from the press in Monteverdi's lifetime. The Selve morale e spirituale of 1640/41 includes pieces of different kinds and scorings. It was very common at the time to select from different collections whatever a maestro di cappella needed for a specific liturgical event and what suited the forces he had at his disposal. Monteverdi mostly leaves it to the performer to decide with how many singers to perform a piece and whether to include instruments, playing colla voce. Mencoboni made abundant use of two cornetts, thee sackbuts and two violins. He even used them where other performers opt for a strictly vocal performance, such as in Confitebor terzo. At the end there was a passage, in which they even substituted for the singers. As much as the performances of the instruments could be admired, I sometimes would have liked to hear only the singers with basso continuo, especially as for this performance, Mencoboni had a newly-built 'Monteverdi organ' with wooden pipes at his disposal. It has been modelled after the kind of instruments which were common in Monteverdi's time. Often the instruments overpowered the organ, and it could only show its character in the pieces for one or a few voices with basso continuo. It is a lovely instrument indeed, and a great asset to performances of this kind of repertoire. It is fully transportable, which allows for being used in performances across the country.

Mencoboni presented a kind of 'liturgical reconstruction'. He had ordered the pieces according to the character of a Vesper liturgy, including antiphons embracing the Vesper psalms and the Magnificat. It was common practice in Monteverdi's time to perform a vocal or instrumental piece instead of the repetition of the antiphon after a Psalm. That was the case here as well. For instance, the first psalm, Dixit Dominus, was preceded by the antiphon Isti sunt Sancti, sung in plainchant, and followed by the solo motet Laudate Dominum in sanctis eius. It was one of several pieces in which the members of the ensemble could show their skills as soloists. They did so very well. The highlight, as far as the solo pieces are concerned, was the Pianto della Madonna, a contrafactum of the famous Lamento d'Arianna. It received a highly expressive performance from Anna Simboli. Currite populi was sung at a notably slow tempo, which seemed to me a little at odds with the text. Mencoboni did not entirely confine himself to the Selva morale e spirituale. For the versiculus Deus in adiutorium meum he turned to the Vespro della Beata Vergine of 1610. From this work he also had taken the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, but adapted the text to the occasion: for a Vesper for St John the Baptist, the text had to be "Sancte Joanne, ora pro nobis". The solo part was divided among four different singers.

Despite the liturgical character of the performance, almost every item was followed by applause from the audience. I found that rather disturbing, but it was partly induced by the scene changes at the stage. These were probably not really necessary, but Mencoboni had decided to use the space of the large hall by sometimes positioning the singers and players at different balconies. That may be understandable, but it can never have the same effect as in a large church. It came at the cost of coherence and largely destroyed the atmosphere of a liturgical event.

I have little but praise for the actual performances, though. Overall, the singing and playing was excellent. Once again, one could admire the brilliance of Monteverdi, and his ability to express the text in his music, but also to explore the splendour of a large scoring. Two issues I have to mention. The players often added ornaments, even while playing colla voce. This did not help to make the texts clearly intelligible. I am not sure that this is what composers of the time expected performers to do, considering the importance of the text. A second issue is the use of contraltos. Their low notes were sometimes rather weak. I just wondered whether the use of high tenors would have been a better option.

The audience reacted with much enthusiasm and rightly so. It resulted in an encore (I could not understand what it was), and it seemed to me that this was an unlucky decision, even though it was very well performed. What better way to close a Monteverdi day than with his brilliant Magnificat primo?

All said and done, this Monteverdi Day was a quite exciting event. One can never get enough Monteverdi.

Johan van Veen ( 2020)

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