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Concert reviews

"The Chant of Angels - Music from the seclusion of Italian convents"

Cappella Artemisia/Candace Smith
concert: Nov 12, 2013, Zeist, Church of the Community of Moravian Brethren

Raphaella ALEOTTI (c1575-1646?): Exurgat Deus; Caterina ASSANDRA (c1590-after 1618): Audite caeli; Adriano BANCHIERI (1568-1634): Anima mea liquefacta est; Gasparo CASATI (c1610-1641): Laudate pueri; Chiara Margarita COZZOLANI (1602-1677): Ecce annuntio vobis; Obstupescite, gentes; Isabella LEONARDA (1620-1704): Sicut turtur; Bianca Maria MEDA (1661?-1732/33): No, non tentate; Maria Xaveria PERUCONA (1652-after 1709): Cessate tympana; Andrea ROTA (c1553-1597): Repleatur os meum; Daniel SPEER (1636-1707): Ecce non dormitabit; Ascanio TROMBETTI (1544-1590): Emendemus in melius; Francesco TURINI (c1589-1656): Tanto tempo hormai (Sonata sopra la Monica)

Pamela Lucciarini, sopraan; Elena Biscuola, Candace Smith, mezzo-soprano; Bruce Dickey, cornett; Claudia Combs, violin; Claudia Pasetto, viola da gamba; Miranda Aureli, organ

Women should be silent in church - that was the general rule in the Roman Catholic Church of the 16th and 17th centuries. Liturgical music was therefore performed by male voices, the soprano and alto parts by boys or - especially in Italy - falsettists and increasingly castratos. That doesn't mean that women could not sing sacred music: in various countries women's convents were centres of music. In Italy many families could pay the dowry for only one of their daughters. The others were sent to a convent. The performance of music was bound by strict rules, but the nuns often found a way to by-pass them or openly broke them. There is documentary evidence of a lively musical practice in various convents. Nuns not only sung but also played instruments - practically every instrument in vogue at the time, including such as the cornett and the sackbut.

The nuns not only played and sang music, some of them even composed. The Cappella Artemisia focuses on the performance of music by composing nuns in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. In November they gave a series of concerts in the Netherlands; I heard the first of these in Zeist, a small town east of Utrecht. The programme was inspired by a collection of music by the German composer Daniel Speer who had once heard music by an unknown nun in Rome. In this collection he pays tribute to this nun by arranging twenty of her motets. One of these ended the concert. Several of the names on the programme are hardly known. Some have become a little known because of the research and performances of the Cappella Artemisia and some other ensembles. Among them are Caterina Assandra, Isabella Leonarda and especially Chiara Margarita Cozzolani.

It is interesting to note that all the pieces in the programme were taken from collections which were printed during the composers' lifetime. That shows that they were taken seriously. Moreover, it is an indication that their music was also meant for performance outside the convents. For that reason the scoring is conventional in that the motets or sacred concertos include parts for tenor and bass. It is known that some women were able to sing pretty low, like in this concert the ensemble's director, Candace Smith. In many cases those low parts will have been transposed an octave upwards or been played at instruments, for instance the sackbut. Whether the programme included any pieces with low parts performed an octave higher is impossible to say as the programme sheet omitted mentioning the original scoring.

Some music was from the late 16th century, but the programme was dominated by pieces from the 17th century. That is the time of the monody and the focus on the text. The nuns whose compositions were performed were fully acquainted with the style of their time. Obstupescite, gentes by Cozzolani is written in a strongly declamatory style, and her monody Ecce annuntio vobis can easily compete with the best music of her time. It was given an outstanding and incisive performance by Pamela Lucciarini. The participation of instruments in this kind of repertoire was demonstrated in Audite caeli by Caterina Assandra which opens with a sinfonia.

With time the style changed. In Sicut turtur by Isabella Leonarda one notices some traces of a separation between recitativic episodes and passages of a more aria-like character. What remained a basic element in vocal music is the use of musical figures to express the text. That comes clearly to the fore, for instance, in Cessate tympana by Maria Xaveria Perucona: "Stop drumming, stop fighting, stop!" No, non tentate is a highly expressive text, set in a most eloquent manner by Bianca Maria Meda.

The programme also included music by male composers. I already mentioned Daniel Speer. Adriana Banchieri dedicated a collection of duets on texts from the Song of Songs to the nuns of the convent Samta Maria dalla Neve in Piacenza. He didn't miss the opportunity to set the words "amore langueo" in an emotive way which was fully explored by Elena Biscuola. Ascanio Trombetta was music teacher at the convent San Lorenzo in Bologna. He was known as a brilliant cornettist, and as a tribute to his art his motet Emendemus in melius was performed twice: a vocal interpretation was followed by Bruce Dickey playing his own diminutions on the top line. As one would expect from the world's best cornettist it was a brilliant performance. Lastly Francesco Turini deserves to be mentioned: he didn't have any ties to a women's convent but wrote instrumental variations on a then popular song La Monaca (or Monica) in which a girl begs her mother not to be sent to a convent because she wants to marry. It was often used for arrangements, for instance by Frescobaldi who also took it as cantus firmus for a mass.

This concert wasn't only interesting from a historical and musical point of view, the performances generally did justice to the character of the repertoire. It was probably due to the rather dry acoustic of the venue where this concert took place, that the balance within the ensemble wasn't always ideal. The cornett tended to dominate a little, and Candace Smith's voice wasn't always clearly audible and often a bit overshadowed by her colleagues or by the cornett. However, she has a remarkable voice and dealt with the sometimes demanding coloratura quite well. Her colleagues were excellent and showed their command of the style of the 17th century. I have already mentioned the outstanding playing of Bruce Dickey; I should not forget the other players who also gave very good accounts of their parts.

All in all, this was an intriguing and compelling concert which was suitable to raise the interest in this kind of repertoire. It is to be hoped that the Cappella Artemisia will have the opportunity to further explore the music by Italian nuns of the 16th and 17th centuries and to perform and record it. This repertoire definitely deserves to be heard outside the seclusion of a convent.

Johan van Veen ( 2013)

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