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Concert reviews

"Soundscape Leonardo da Vinci"
Capella de la Torre/Katharina Bäuml
concert: Nov 23, 2019, Utrecht, Pieterskerk

anon: Basse danse Jouissance je vous donneray; Caminata; Il marchese o di Saluto; La Gamba; La virtù se vol seguire; Qui desidra esser felice; Se l'ortolana vene a la cità; Marchetto CARA (c1465-1525): La virtù se vol seguire; Non è tempo d'aspettare; Tante volte sí sí sí; Andrea FALCONIERI (1585/86-1656): Ciaconna; Jean HESDIMOIS (fl 1510): Tutto il mondo è fantasia; Heinrich ISAAC (c1450/55-1517): A la battaglia; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (1450/55-1521): Tu solus qui facis mirabilia; LEONARDO da Vinci (1452-1519): Amore sola mi fa remirare; Niccolo PIFFARO (1480-c1566): Di lassar tu divo aspetto; Dionisius PLACENTINUS (fl c1500): Egli è il tuo bon Iesù; Claudin DE SERMISY (c1490-1562): Jouissance je vous donneray; Bartolomeo TROMBONCINO (1470-after 1534): Gentil Donna; Ostinato vo' seguire; Adrian WILLAERT (c1490-1562): Vecchie letrose

Margaret Hunter, soprano; Katharina Bäuml, Hildegard Wippermann, shawm; Annette Hils, dulcian; Tural Ismayilov, sackbut; Johannes Vogt, lute; Martina Fiedler, organ; Mike Turnbull, percussion

This year (2019) the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is commemorated. One could call him an uomo universale, as his areas of interest included "invention, drawing, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography", as we read in Wikipedia. Some musicians are keen to put together programmes that are connected to historical events or personalities, sometimes as part of commemorations, such as the Reformation or, as in this case, the death of Leonardo da Vinci. One of them is Katharina Bäuml, who in recent years has recorded several programmes with music about, for instance, "Luther's wedding day", Charles V, Henry VIII, Emperor Ferdinand I or a meeting of Philip the Fair, regent of Habsburg Burgundy, and his father, Emperor Maximilian, in Innsbruck in 1503. No wonder, then, that she saw the commemoration of Leonardo's death. Last year, deutsche harmonia mundi released a disc of her ensemble under the title "Soundscape - Leonardo da Vinci", the same title as the concert I attended in Utrecht.

As far as the pre-romantic era is concerned, there are good reasons to connect historical events or personalities with music. Firstly, music was a part of everyday life, and therefore basically every event of any importance was accompanied by performances of music. Secondly, as music was also part of education, any person of some stature came into contact with music and often had connections to performing musicians or composers. Leonardo da Vinci is a special case. He not only was knowledgeable about music, he was also a skilled player of the lira da braccio, an instrument widely used in the 15th century. However, it was mostly used to accompany a singer or reciter of poetry, and such accompaniments were usually improvised. Therefore it can hardly surprise that not a single note from Leonardo's pen has come down to us. At least, that is the general thought. Apparently Katharina Bäuml has found a piece which can be attributed to him. The liner-notes to the above-mentioned disc state: "Leonardo left behind a handful of mysterious texts involving musical notation, including the rebus Amore sola mi fa remirare (...). Regardless of the great esteem in which it is held and assuming that it is preserved in full, music is here involved in a game."

A large part of the programme is the same as that on the disc, but there are also differences, probably partly due to the fact that for the recording, Bäuml had two singers at her disposal, whereas in the concert Margaret Hunter was the only singer. The pieces are by composers who were Leonardo's contemporaries. The inclusion of a piece in the programme does not imply that he knew the composer or that he has ever heard that particular piece. The programme largely gives an idea about the music in his time. In this respect Bäuml follows a different path than Denis Raisin Dadre and Robert Hollingworth, who both took Leonardo's paintings and drawings as their sources of inspiration (review). Bäuml's approach is more like the traditional way to illustrate the life of a historical figure.

It was a very attractive programme that was performed in the medieval Pieterskerk in Utrecht. Some items were litttle-known, whereas others will have been familiar to those who have a more than average knowledge of renaissance music. That goes especially for the pieces by Marchetto Cara and Bartolomeo Tromboncino, two of the better-known composers in the programme. These are specimens of an important genre at the time, the frottola. Many of these pieces were intended for domestic performance, but there are also indications that they were performed by an ensemble of four singers or of one singer - usually performing the top line - and instruments. The latter was the way they were performed at this concert. An interesting question is in what kind of venues they were performed in such a line-up, and what kind of instruments were used. There is probably no conclusive evidence about this matter. Therefore I am not in the position to say that Bäuml had it wrong or was right in performing these pieces with several loud wind instruments and in this rather large venue, with a spacious acoustic. Even so, I have my doubts whether these performances do really justice to the character of these pieces. That also goes for the quite exuberant way Margaret Hunter performed them, with quite virtuosic ornamentation, including wide leaps from the centre to the top of her register.

There can be no doubs, though, about the quality of her singing. She has a very nice voice, which is perfectly suited to early music, and she blended perfectly with the instruments. The ensemble was excellent throughout, but at several moments some of the players had the opportunity to show their skills, such as Johannes Vogt at the lute and Martina Fiedler, the excellent organist of the ensemble. Overall, the programme was very entertaining, and some pieces were even quite exciting, such as Falconieri's Ciaconna. We cannot overlook that Falconieri was not exactly a contemporary of Leonardo. But Bäuml is rather - let's say - 'pragmatic' in her choice of music.

It was a good decision of Bäuml to play the pieces almost attacca. When the individual pieces are rather short, it is quite annoying if each of them is followed by applause. That came at the end of the concert, and that was well deserved.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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