A Decoration of Silence

The lute music of il Divino Francesco Canova da Milano (1497-1543), Vol. 2
72:02
BGS128 (7 60537 09045 4)

Francesco Canova da Milano’s ricercars and fantasias are freely composed polyphonic pieces, and consist largely of short sequences of musical ideas, each developed and explored. The present CD comprises 29 of them, which Nigel North arranges into sets according to key. The first set (Ness 6, 61, 67 65, 23) are all in F major. A distinctive feature of Francesco’s style is his constantly shifting harmonic vocabulary, heard to good effect in Ricercar 6. B naturals replace B flats to take us sharp side of the spectrum, and E flats replace E naturals to take us flat side. However, these shifts are too temporary to count as modulation to a different key, but rather they are chromatic touches to an enriched palette of chords in F major. An interesting example is Fantasia 61, which effectively ends with a perfect cadence (C – F) in bar 34, rounded off with a plagal cadence (B flat – F) in bar 36. However, to reach the B flat chord Francesco inserts a quick chord of E flat – a secondary subdominant – which exaggerates the move flat side for the plagal cadence. Many of Francesco’s pieces are similar in character, indeed some passages occur in more than one piece: the passage in bars 22-4 of Fantasia 61 is the same as bars 52-4 of Fantasia 67. For variety North adopts different speeds: Ricercar 6 is slow and rhapsodic. His rhythmic freedom is effective in clarifying phrasing and drawing attention to special chords, although sometimes it creates an unsettling jerkiness especially in descending scalic passages. Excitement is lost in bar 25, where four quavers are slowed down almost to the speed of crotchets elsewhere in the piece. In contrast, Fantasia 61 has no quavers, and North takes it at a fast and sprightly tempo. He corrects a dittographical error in Fantasia 65 by omitting bars 110-2: Arthur Ness in his collected Milano edition and Martin Shepherd in the Lute Society Milano series, both reproduce these bars, which I accept were wrongly duplicated in the original.

The G minor set (Ness 70, 71, 88, 55) begins with two beautiful miniature ricercars (70, 71) taken from Vincenzo Galilei’s Intavolatura de Lauto (Rome, 1563), published 20 years after Francesco’s death. Ricercar 70 begins with five rolled chords, and grows into imitative polyphony, with the theme heard at three different octaves. North strings his lute as Francesco did, that is with the 4th, 5th and 6th courses strung in octaves. When one of these courses is plucked, both notes will normally be heard, but it is possible to emphasise the lower octave by plucking with one’s right-hand thumb, or the upper octave by plucking with one’s index finger. In bar 31 of Ricercar 71, a low f# on the 4th course is marked with a dot for the note to be played with the index finger, but North appears to use his thumb, bringing out the lower octave instead. Fortunately this tiny detail does not detract from North’s thoughtful and expressive performance. In Ricercar 88 he changes c6 to a5, I think correctly, which coincidentally matches a similar passage in bars 55-7 of Ricercar 6; there are some beautifully placed chords in bar 27, but his rallentando at bar 51 loses the excitement of four fast cadential quavers.

The third set (Ness 78, 29, 91, 5) is in F major, and is played on a viola da mano tuned a tone higher than the lute. Both instruments were built by Malcolm Prior, and have a bright, clear tone, ideal for this repertoire. The earliest printed source of Francesco’s music is Intavolatura de Viola o vero Lauto  (1536), which mentions both instruments; it is likely that the music in Italian lute tablature was intended for the lute, and that the music in Neapolitan tablature was intended for the viola da mano, but both instruments have the same tuning, and they could be used interchangeably for any of Francesco’s music. North also uses the viola da mano for the last two sets (Ness 52, 21, 63, 20, 18, 19).

Some of Francesco’s pieces are quite short, lasting one minute or less. Ricercar 91 has a mere 29 bars, but North spins it out to 1’36” by playing it through twice. For track 14 he plays Ricercar 14, runs straight into Ricercar 74, and then goes back for a repeat of Ricercar 14, the whole thing lasting just 2’16”. Fantasia 25, on the other hand, is an extended work, made up of many sections, each developing a particular musical idea; most surprising and effective are three semibreve chords at bars 111-3, which temporarily call a halt to the constant hustle and bustle of quavers and semiquavers scurrying across the fingerboard. Fantasia 83 appears twice in Cambridge University Library Dd.2.11: on folio 16r (used by Ness in his edition), and folio 18r (used by Shepherd for the Lute Society Milano series). North plays the version on 18r, but he does not include c4 in the first bar, a note which Shepherd reinstates for the sake of imitation of the opening theme. The CD ends with a long Fantasia from the Castelfranco MS, which does not have a Ness number, because it was discovered after Ness’s edition was published.
This is North’s second CD devoted to the music of Francesco. The first was Dolcissima et Amorosa  (BGS 122). I hope he will be tempted to produce a third.

Stewart McCoy

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