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In morte di Madonna Laura: Madrigal Cycle After Texts of Petrarca.

This diverse selection of recordings of 16th-century Italian secular vocal music gives rise to some interesting comparisons between current approaches to performance of this music and the assumptions which underlie them.

The two recordings by the Huelgas Ensemble have the most ambitious artistic programmes of this group. In morte di Madonna Laura draws together Petrarch settings from throughout Italy on the reasonable assumption that such heavyweight poetry brought out some of the most profound contemporary music. The result is an interesting range of works by composers who for the most part have attracted little attention from scholars or performers because they are from unfashionable regions for study. This is a welcome opportunity to hear such fine provincial composers as Rossetti and de'Servi as well as more famous (although perhaps as little performed) names like Vicentino.

The other Huelgas disc, Italia mia, aims to give an insight into the evolution of Italian music from the late 15th century to the beginning of the 17th: as the introductory notes would have it, from emotionless minstrelsy to the perfection of Rore to the decadent over-emotionalism of Nenna. In the process we come across some of the most famous compositions to be described by contemporary theorists, such as Rore's Calami sonum ferentes.

The evolutionary line of the introduction, however, fails to emerge for three reasons. First, evolutionary theories have fallen into disrepute over the years, particularly as many period-instrument performers have encouraged us to listen to works in their own right rather than as steps on the road to perfection. Second, the selection recorded here is of works too unusual to reflect accurately more widespread developments in their period. Third, the performing style adopted by the Huelgas Ensemble does not help to illustrate the intrinsic emotional properties of the music they have chosen.

The selection of atypical works is problematic in that it is difficult for the modern listener to appreciate the strangeness of a Calami sonum ferentes out of context. Even to a listener reasonably familiar with music of this period, nothing on the Italia mia disc was as startling as Vicentino's Laura che'l verde lauro at the end of In morte di Madonna Laura, a disc which concentrates on a narrower time span and therefore allows such weird enharmonic progressions to be fully appreciated.

The performance style of the Huelgas Ensemble is curious, perhaps reflecting the group's main specialism in late medieval Franco-Flemish music. Although the liner notes to both recordings refer repeatedly to the importance of the madrigal's text, the consonants are smoothed over in the quest for a perfect legato to the point where it is not always apparent which language is being sung, let alone which poem. I am also unconvinced by the use of solo voice with broken consort to perform most of the music in these programmes. This is not a blanket opposition to the use of instruments in madrigal performances, although I believe the recorders, curtals and sackbuts used by this ensemble to be historically unjustified. It is more important to ensure that the participation of these particular instruments suits the character of the music being performed. The appropriateness to the frottola of soprano with a broken consort--of chamber instruments--is amply demonstrated by Circa 1500 (see below), but in the music chosen by the Huelgas Ensemble the line taken by the voice is often, for at least part of its duration, a minor strand given under prominence by being sung not played. This approach can also undermine work such as Tudino's, where unusual harmonic progressions involve the crossing of voices, by emphasizing the movement of the individual voice at the expense of the harmony.

The exceptional purity of intonation and beauty of vocal quality in Vicentino's Laura che'l verde lauro attest to the ensemble's fine musicianship. I felt, however, that they were striving to add extraneous effect to music that should not have required such effort if the performance had been governed by the text. Some of the effects produced are beautiful, but amount to a modern rearrangement for 16th-century instruments: for example, Spirito l'Hoste da Reggio's setting of Oime'il bel viso is converted into a funeral march chanted by solo voices with a consort of muffled brass and percussion, which gives little idea of what it might have sounded like as a madrigal. If, as in these recordings, one adopts dirge-like tempi for madrigals, special effects are needed to compensate for the loss of immediacy which results from hearing a work at half speed.

The Hilliard Ensemble, on the other hand, perform with no instruments and no extraneous effects, but the same emphasis on sonority at the expense of tempo. Their recording has no air of communication with an audience: indeed, one item for eight voices was produced by double-tracking the four singers. Despite their claim to explore |virtually all the main kinds of vocal music current in Italy in the 16th century', the four-voice ensemble eliminates many important areas, such as the madrigal for five voices: as a result, the programme is largely divided between early works by Flemish composers (Compere, Verdelot, Arcadelt) and light pieces such as the frottole by Caprioli, nearly all music widely available in Anglo-American modern editions. Unfortunately, the two types of work are treated little differently by the performers, with only the odd glimmer of humour in the bawdily comic final numbers.

I found two elements of the Hilliard's performance particularly displeasing. One was the covered falsetto sound of the cantus, which contrasts sharply with the fresh, natural sound of the hautescontre in the Ensemble Clement Janequin. The other was a lack of attention to the natural accentuation of the text, which may have derived from the theory that Italian in the 16th century was still a quantitative, unstressed language of long and short syllables, not strong and weak ones. In places where the text pulls against the musical tactus the diction is sometimes very odd.

Enough of the bad news. My husband's only complaint about the Ensemble Clement Janequin's recording was that it sounded like a succession of encores: so much energy on an hour-long disc can wear out the listener. Their well balanced and beautifully performed programme shows a vivid appreciation of both the Lassus most people know and love, who wrote the motet-like serious chansons, and the all too little known humorist who could play Pantaloon in an authentic Venetian accent and have them rolling in the aisles.

But the disc that will be played most often in our household is the one I

least expected to enjoy, not being well versed in the frottola: the long-awaited release on CD of Circa 1500's programme of Cara, Tromboncino and others, recorded in 1984. Despite the sometimes cavalier approach that the frottolists took to the words, Emily van Evera's natural, forthright delivery is the pick of this bunch when it comes to effective communication. This is music ideally suited to solo voice and broken consort, and the consort here is vivid and sympathetic, with the lirone used to great effect in some of the darker pieces. A good introduction by van Evera and Nancy Hadden reinforces the impression that this group communicate well precisely because this medium comes naturally to them. Anyone for evolution?
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Author:Mabbett, Margaret
Publication:Early Music
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Previous Article:Frye: Ave Regina Celorum.
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