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Kapsberger: Libro Primo d'Intavolatura di Lauto.

Girolamo Kapsberger (C.1580-1651) always claimed that he was of aristocratic German birth, although he worked as a professional musician, principally at the papal court in Rome, throughout his life. As well as being an internationally celebrated performer on the chitarrone or theorbo, he composed music in every genre, most of which is lost today.

Hopkinson Smith's programme is based around the sequence of eight toccatas in various keys that opens Girolamo Kapsberger: Libro primo d'intavolatura di lauto (Astree E8553, rec 1995). This collection of lute music, published in Rome in 1611, follows the habit of several such collections of the time in presenting the music ordered by genre rather than by key. His contemporaries Alessandro Piccinini (1623) and Michelangelo Galilei (1620), by contrast, ordered their pieces more usefully the latter actually grouping the music into `suites', each with its own toccata. An incidental virtue of Kapsberger's arrangement, whereby it is rather awkward to perform a programme directly from the book, is that the player ideally needs to write out the pieces in the desired sequence, or, more conveniently still, to memorize all the music.

The process of `throwing away the book' that memorizing engenders is an extremely healthy approach to music of this period. For improvisation is the very lifeblood of Kapsberger's art, in which every trick in the lutanist's armoury is brought to bear on that most important aspect of music, the performance itself. His tablatures are notorious among lutenists for their apparent inconsistencies and illogicalities: bars sometimes do not add up to the `right' number of beats; dissonances--often unprepared and/or unresolved--frequently disturb the smooth surface; frantic bursts of fast notes interject themselves at inopportune moments. But perhaps Kapsberger was striving to say as much as he could about how the music should actually be performed: tablature notation owes no allegiance to the `rules' of music; it is a purely practical device for imparting performance information. When taken at face value, the notes really do start to make sense as prescriptions for performance.

Hopkinson Smith, who has done more than any other lutenist to recover something of this improvisatory tradition, lives and breathes this music in a way that is highly impressive. He exercises his right to go further than the notation, of course, occasionally even adding ornamental notes, chord-fillings and variations on repeats, but always in ways that complement Kapsberger's highly imaginative music. As Victor Coelho's very informative notes explain, this seems to have been normal practice at the time.

I have no hesitation in recommending this disc to anyone interested in any music of the 17th century. It really is important that we constantly remind ourselves how much lies between and beneath the written notes, so to speak. I even forgive the inclusion of arrangements of two pieces written by Kapsberger for his main instrument, the chitarrone or theorbo, although I find the Toccata Arpeggiata (a gem published for chitarrone in the previous year) sadly disappointing when divorced from the splendid sonority of the bigger instrument. Hopkinson Smith ends this marvellous recital by following that piece with two of the most restrained and serene of Kapsberger's dances, a welcome point of calm after the storm and stress of pieces like the unsettling Corrente I, whose extraordinary reluctance to cadence normally seems years--even centuries--ahead of its time.

The first thing that strikes one on hearing the opening chords of Nigel North's Piccinini: Intavolatura di liuto e di chitarrone, Libro primo (Arcane A6, rec 1994) is the winning gravity and resonance of the chitarrone, Kapsberger's favourite instrument. North is not such a capricious player as Smith, although in fact he plays with as much rhythmic freedom. His remarkable harmonic sensibility and gift for the expression of melodic lines, especially in polyphonic passages, make him an ideal exponent of the music of Alessandro Piccinini (1566-C.1638), one of Kapsberger's leading older contemporaries. The music of this Bolognese musician is at first sight less 'extreme' than that of the `nobile Alemano', although both worked at the same time in Rome during the first decade of the century.

The fact that Piccinini returned to his native Bologna in 1611, the year of publication of Kapsberger's Libro primo for lute, is probably a coincidence, although the German seems to have engendered more than his fair share of professional jealousy during his career, but there is a marked difference between their styles of composition. Piccinini's art is more lyrical, and his music at first seems more successful `on the page' then Kapsberger's. It is perhaps not so immediately exciting, although there are some extraordinary things here, and not a little virtuosity, notably in his toccatas. The balance is more towards the craft of the composer than the art of the performer as exemplified by Kapsberger. Nigel North responds in kind by bringing out the constructional integrity of the music in a way that I very much admire. Occasionally a little of the Hopkinson Smith capriciousness would not have gone amiss, but the disc is never dull (unlike some interpretations of this repertory that I have heard).

Piccinini includes music for the 14-course lute as well as the sonorous chitarrone. North even-handedly gives us 12 pieces for each instrument. The contrast is fascinating, particularly as the engineer and producer seem to have taken pains to record both at a similar level, so the extra depth and richness imparted by the larger body and longer string-length of the chitarrone is strikingly apparent. One is hardly aware of the lower tessitura arising from the fact that two strings are tuned relatively an octave lower than on the smaller lute.

This re-entrant tuning actually allows for some special effects, notably in arpeggiation (the most distinctive technical device for the chitarrone player), but also in the possibilities for unusual dissonance. This is brought out marvellously by Nigel North in the wonderful Toccata X, which sounds like an instrumental evocation of the Monteverdian madrigal. Appropriately, it is followed by a thrilling ciaccona (played with great impulse and wit) which is based on the ground bass known to all Monteverdi lovers as that which underpins the favourite vocal duet, Zefiro torna. Among other items on the disc, I especially relished the gagliarde, and the sequences of variations on well-known tunes or harmonic patterns, of which there are no fewer than seven, reflecting the traditional importance of the genre to the 17th-century musician. This disc, like that of Hopkinson Smith, is a truly essential buy for any record collection, private, public or academic.
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Author:Crawford, Tim
Publication:Early Music
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Aug 1, 1996
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