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Luzzaschi: The Secret Music, Madrigali a Uno, Due e Tre Soprani for the Ladies of Ferrara.

As one of the later members of the Neapolitan madrigal school which included de Macque, Nenna and Gesualdo, Sigismondo d'India, |nobleman of Palermo,' was a skilful and prolific composer of both polyphonic and solo madrigals, for which he wrote many of his own texts. The exquisite quality of his work for solo voice is well illustrated in the programme selected by Nigel Rogers, especially in the simpler pieces such as Mentreche'l cor and Torna il sereno Zefiro from the later books. The Lamento d'Orfeo of the disc's title is full of fine images but weakly constructed and lacking in momentum: it is interesting to compare it with the later Lamento di Giasone, where d'India has clearly absorbed the lessons of Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna and constructs a very effective poetic and musical form with sections of contrasting mood - grief for the children, anger at Medea and philosophical resignation - separated by a short refrain.

These plangent, dramatic works give Nigel Rogers, whose recordings of Caccini established him as the doyen among performers of early 17th-century monody, ample opportunity to display his finest qualities. His voice still has a strong presence and the agility to deal with d'India's florid ornamentation. Given the composer's tendency to use dissonant effects similar to those in his polyphonic madrigals, it is fortunate that Rogers is supported by two of Britain's most extrovert continuo players.

With no instrumental interludes, the 69-minute programme is rather hard work to listen to at a single sitting. Even in the lighter strophic airs, Rogers's intensity of delivery does not really lessen, and there are few quiet or restrained moments. However, although I have sometimes been irritated by Rogers's mannerisms in other recordings and in performance, his theatrical style here appears in sympathy with d'India's demands.

As Deborah Roberts points out in her programme note, Luzzasco Luzzaschi's Madrigali a una, due e tre soprani, published in 1601, are the only surviving music known to have been composed for the famous but closely guarded talents of the singing ladies of Ferrara in the 1580s and 1590s. Their special abilities enabled Luzzaschi to write music that did remarkable things with the female voice, and even before the publication of this book many of his innovations had filtered out through his contact with other composers, allowing the wide leaps, florid ornamentation and sensuous texture of intertwined female voices to be absorbed into a more widespread musical language.

This music is of great musicologiocal importance, and it is easy to see why the members of Musica Secreta find it so challenging and so fascinating to perform. It is probably easier to excite an audience with this technical higb wire act in live performance. On disc it appears as a hot-house plant, rarefied and over-refined: after all, this music was written largely to demonstrate to a tiny group of connoisseurs that the ladies of Ferrara could sing higher, faster and more bizarrely than their rivals who had been quickly recruited by the court at Mantua. The need to display maximum virtuosity results in the emotional content being pushed to the background: the sounds are pleasing but the general effect is bland.

It is to Musica Secreta's credit that the sounds, in general, are so pleasing and that technical insecurities rarely mar their performance. Both Deborah Roberts and Suzie Leblanc sometimes show a nasal timbre and uncertainty of pitch on the top notes, which caused me to wonder whether it would have been more appropriate to perform at a lower pitch standard. In the light of an uncharacteristically subdued performance from Mary Nichols, I also suspect that some of the blandness resulted from a cautious approach to this difficult music when recording.

Reluctance to take risks, even when recording, is not a characteristic of Concerto Italiano. I am not merely expressing a stereotypical Anglo-Saxon view about hot-blooded Latin types when I rave about their uninhibited and extrovert attitude towards expressing emotion. I hope I have not simply been missing out on something that has been available for years, but, I Musici playing Vivaldi in the style of Mantovani apart, this is the first time I have heard early Italian music performed by Italians, and I find it enthralling.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Concerto Italiano is the complete freedom and confidence with which they utter the text and the extent to which this declamation drives the whole performance. Those who do not have a mother-tongue command of the language tend, even when their diction is clear and technically correct, to be afraid of the words, worried that they might put the emphasis on the wrong syllable or deterred by the apparent harshness of some of the consonants. Most performers also find it particularly difficult to express anger without constricting their voices and allowing it to degenerate into a sneer. Concerto Italiano simply spit out the consonants and dare to take the passage at a correspondingly furious pace. The result in the Lamento d'Arianna is wild, irate, utterly convincing and well on the way towards the stile concitato of the 1620s.

The selection of more substantial voices than are common in madrigal ensembles north of the Alps, especially in the case of the women, gives the group the necessary vocal power to make sense of the mass of suspensions in the last line of Zefiro torna, while the bass Daniele Carnovich underpins the ensemble with an almost 16' sound. The risks taken reveal themselves in occasional slips in intonation and ensemble, and most of the singers are noticeably less at ease in solo or duet passages. Alessandrini has adopted the 1620 edition of the book, with continuo throughout - a sensible approach with this group, who seem to need the continuo to restrain them: it is also restrainedly performed by a single plucked instrument in each of the nonconcertato madrigals. The pitch used is a semitone above modern concert pitch, which appears surprisingly comfortable for the singers (indeed, Les Arts Florissants' version of the Sestina sounds higher).

It was interesting to compare the approaches of Concerto Italiano and Les Arts Florissants to the Sestina (for the latter, see Il ballo delle ingrate, Harmonia Mundi HMC 1108). Les Arts Florissants adopt a sumptuous texture, with organ, theorbo, gamba and lyra viol, which sounds splendid but obscures the inner parts of the polyphony. The Concerto Itahano approach does not attempt to produce the same type of seamless sound: the double harp continuo seldom obtrudes, all voices are given equal weight, and Alessandrini is not afraid of silences between phrases (sometimes to an extent that would only really make sense in a live performance). While Les Arts Florissants embellish their exclamations of |ahi! lasso' with portameintos and gasps almost as much as Concerto Italiano, in the latter ensemble these appear to spring more instinctively from the individual performer. Fond as I will remain of Les Arts Florissants' sumptuous sound, the greater clarity of the Concerto Italiano texture enables a better understanding of how Monteverdi makes the piece work.

It may seem rather unfair to compare within the same review a recording of a |great' composer with those of composers of |secondary' importance. This is a distinction that I, along with many other musicologists, tend to avoid, partly because it involves the imposition of value judgements which might not stand the test of time and partly because too much emphasis on the |greats' has led us in the past to neglect much historically important, interesting and beautiful music. However, the relatively unadorned but entirely uninhillited approach taken by Concerto Italiano, and especially their utter absorption in the text, serve to highlight the |great' qualities of Monteverdi's music to an extent which the most egalitarian eritic can hardly ignore.

Monteverdi's understanding of formal principles, especially his appreciation of the relationship between a |formless' madrigal text and the creation of a powerful musical structure through the apt use of texture, timing and large-scale word-painting, is the outstanding product of a long-lived composer who never forgot his initial training but was always interested in innovation. When performers approach this music in the apparent belief that it requires additional layers of interpretation to be superimposed rather than the confident exposition of what is already there, its inherent excitement is all too often overlooked in favour of the surface elements which are most similar to those of Monteverdi's younger contemporaries.

As regards the presentation of these performances, all the recordings are of good technical quality. Rogers and Musica Secreta both chose to record in resonant, but not overly echoing, churches, while Concerto Italiano recorded in a large chamber, using the Linn Numerik system to overcome the potential harshness of a digital recording at close quarters. The booklets are all well introduced, with a particularly well-thought-out if somewhat partisan essay on d'India from Paolo Emilio Carapezza. The verse translations into English are the only thing to let the side down, being generally too literal to make much sense even before the odd slip in interpretation: it also appears that Frank Dobbins had no opportunity to proof-read his effort for the Monteverdi disc, while Musica Secreta's booklet suffers from poor layout which makes it difficult to refer between original and translation.
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Author:Mabbett, Margaret
Publication:Early Music
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
Previous Article:d'India: Lamento D'Orfeo, Musiche Da Cantar Solo.
Next Article:Monteverdi: Il Sesto Libro de Madrigali.

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