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Concert reviews

"Li due Orfei di Firenze"
Marc Mauillon, baritone; Angélique Mauillon, harp
concert: March 13, 2018, Zeist, Church of the Community of Moravian Brethren

Giulio CACCINI (1551-1618): A quei sospiri ardenti; Amarilli mia bella; Dolcissimo sospiro; Mentre che fra doglie e pene; Movetevi a pietà; Non ha'l ciel; Odi Euterpe; Perfidissimo volto; Pien d'amoroso affetto; Torna, deh torna; Tutto 'l di piango; Vedrò il mio sol; Luzzasco LUZZASCHI (c1545-1607): Canzona; Toccata; Jacopo PERI (1561-1633): Al fonte al prato; Tu dormi; Tra le donne; Tutto 'l di piango; Alessandro PICCININI: Aria di sarabanda

Music from a time of change often enjoys the interest of performers. That certainly goes for the decades around 1600, when in Italy the whole concept of music was put upside down. Whereas in the renaissance polyphony there was relatively little connection between text and music, in the so-called stile nuovo the text took first place, and the music was expected to be its servant. However, despite the suggestion that this approach was entirely new, its outline manifested itself already in the madrigals of some composers of the late 16th century.

One of the most marked exponents of the 'new style' was Giulio Caccini. In the preface to his collection of songs, which he published in 1602 unter the pretentious title Le nuove musiche, he explained at length the principles on which his compositions were based and how they should be performed. Every vocal technique a singer had at his disposal, such as dynamics and ornamentation, should be used for the benefit of expression. The two main principles of the new style were rhetorics and affetti. These were to determine the character of music until well into the 18th century.

The French baritone Marc Mauillon and his sister Angélique, playing the harp, presented a programme of music from the early decades of the 17th century in a short series of recitals in the Netherlands. I attended the first, which took place in the church of the Moravian Brethren in Zeist, near Utrecht, a most appropriate venue because of its rather intimate character and good acoustic.

The main part of the programme was devoted to Caccini. Inevitably his best-known song, Amarilli mia bella, was included, but this recital showed that there is more to Caccini than this evergreen. The programme opened with Dolcissimo sospiri, based, as most songs, on an amorous text. Here Mauillon demonstrated the use of dynamic differentation for expressive reasons in an effective application of the messa di voce, for instance on "ecco" (see). Another example was "piango" (weep) in Tutto 'l dì piango.

The songs by Caccini come in different forms. Whereas some pieces are through-composed, others are strophic, such as Mentre che fra doglie e pene, Tra le donne and Odi, Euterpe. Obviously that allows for less differentiation in the treatment of the text, but the means of interpretation make up for it, for instance dynamics, the colouring of the voice and subtle variation in tempo. These devices were fully explored by Mauillon, whose performance was strongly rhetorical in that he aimed to communicate the content of the songs and its emotions to the audience.

Arguably all Italian music is theatrical by nature. That aspect came also to the fore in the way Mauillon presented these songs. However, that does not mean that all Italian music is the same. Mauillon also included some songs by Jacopo Peri, another protagonist of the new style. Caccini and Peri were contemporaries, but also rivals. According to Mauillon Peri is the more intellectual. As not that much music from the latter's pen has been preserved, and only a few songs were included in Mauillon's programme, it is hard to tell to what extent that is indeed the case. At least the songs included in this programme suggested that Peri was more restrained and certainly less theatrical, even though he was one of the first to compose an opera (Euridice). Tu dormi, e 'l dolce sonno is a song of great subtlety, and may be well characteristic of his style. The text gives reason to a more intimate setting, but Mauillon also juxtaposed two settings of the same text: Tutto 'l di piango, first from the pen of Caccini, later in the version of Peri. Here again it became clear that the latter prefers a more intimate approach, whereas Caccini's setting is more theatrical and characterised by broad gestures.

Although Caccini and Peri are household names, their music is not that often performed. Caccini's Amarilli mia bella has unfortunately almost completely overshadowed the remainder of his oeuvre, and both composers are in the shadow of Claudio Monteverdi. It is probably telling that the audience was not that large, in comparison to other concerts during the season. It may also be a factor that Marc Mauillon is not that well known yet. He should be, because he proved to be the ideal interpreter of this repertoire. Technically his singing was flawless, and he also effectively applied the interpretational devices an interpreter from the time of Caccini and Peri had at his disposal. This kind of songs are mostly performed by higher voices, not that often by a baritone or bass. But as these songs are for voice and basso continuo, they can be easily sung by any voice type. Mauillon was an eloquent and rhetorically well equipped story teller.

It was quite usual at the time that the singer accompanied himself on the chitarrone or the harp. In this case Mauillon was accompanied by his sister, who played her instrument in the same vein. This was expected from an instrumentalist of the time: instrumental music was just as rhetorical as vocal music - basically it was vocal music without a text. That came to the fore not only in Angélique Mauillon's accompaniments, but also in the solo pieces by Luzzaschi and Piccinini. These are not specifically intended for harp, but for harpsichord and chitarrone respectively, but in the 17th century music for keyboard, harp and plucked instruments was largely interchangeable.

The concert ended with a lovely piece, in which Angélique joined her brother in the refrain. It was the conclusion of a most captivating recital, which hopefully will find its way to disc. And let's also hope Caccini and Peri will appear more frequently on concert programmes. They deserve more attention and larger audiences.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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