Categories
Recording

BACH

Barnaby Smith countertenor, Illyria Consort
72:16
VOCES8 Records VCM152

The countertenor Barnaby Smith has followed a CD of Handel with one of Bach, and this too is excellent. Not only is Barnaby Smith a first-rate musician: he is used to singing with others (in Voces8 most evidently) and he treats his instrumentalists as equal partners in his music-making, but he is an experienced director. This is all too rare among singers, many of whom are used to being soloists and to having lesser mortals as accompanists.

Not so on this finely prepared and executed CD, where attention to every line – instrumental as well as vocal – in this well-chosen programme counts. It begins with the 1735 version of the solo cantata BWV 82, Ich habe genug, where Barnaby Smith sings within himself, varying the tone and approach between the three very different arias and the more dramatic recitatives as old Simeon welcomes the Christ child and prepares to let go of this life. From the first, we are introduced to the kind of music-making we are to expect. In the opening phrase, the admirable oboist Leo Duarte subtly varies the rising figure between the first and the second (and fuller) entry of the rising theme, and this elegant rhythmic flexibility is mirrored by the voice when the singer enters.

This pattern of interchange between voice and instruments that is such a hallmark of Bach’s writing is exhibited in the next group of arias. First, in Erbarme dich from the Matthäus Passion, where the interweaving between Bojan Čičič’s violin and the singer stresses this group’s commitment to performing Bach as what the modern world knows as chamber music, a style stressed by including the duet Et in unum from the B minor with Katie Jeffries-Harris. In Es ist Vollbracht from the Johannes Passion, Reiko Ichise joins the starry cast of players and the virtues of playing one to a part are exhibited in the central section, where the paschal victory of the Lion of Judah is anticipated by the semiquavers of the strings as they underscore the D major trumpet calls of the brilliant vocal part.

In cantata 170, another solo cantata for alto, it is the turn of Steven Devine, the organ player, to shine. Not only does he lead the jaunty concerto-like last movement with a perky obbligato, but he manages the two intertwined lines above the basset bass of upper strings on a single manual. A comparison with the fine recording of this cantata by Damien Guillon with Le Banquet Céleste using a substantial organ at A=415hz, built in 2007 for the Église du Bouclier in Strasbourg, is instructive. Barnaby Smith comes out with a clarity of tone and an enviable flexibility that makes blending with his players sound easy and natural, the result of singer and players listening to each other, players picking up the phrasing dictated by the underlay, and the singer alive to how the instruments articulate each passage.

The other plus of this CD is Barnaby Smith’s liturgical sense. We end this recital with two pieces – the well-known Agnus Dei from the B minor mass and an aria of Mary Magdalen’s from the Easter Oratorio. In the Agnus, we hear the voice in its unadorned purity of line as it is given sinuous counterpoint in dialogue with the upper strings, and in the aria Saget, saget mir Geschwinde we jump into a sprightly movement, where the oboe d’amore takes wing and provides the colour in the ritornelli that seem to be part of a concerto for d’amore until the voice takes centre stage. Here we hear some other delights: a fagotto seems a natural addition to the continuo line (as does a harpsichord), and we might hardly be aware of its presence till in the piano at the start of the middle section it – very properly – dips out. It is this kind of attention to detail in the preparation of this performance that makes it not just a musical delight, but an important exercise in how to perform this music which everyone interested in performance practice should study.

This is a superlative recording, and the clips of various numbers from the CD available on Youtube will increase its value. All readers of EMR should buy it, and learn from it. This is how to do it.

David Stancliffe

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Recording

Mozart: The symphonies – the beginning and the end

Il Pomo d’Oro directed from the fortepiano by Maxim Emelyanychev
77:00
Aparté 307

This is the first in what is planned to be a long-term project to record all the Mozart symphonies, with the addition to each volume of what Maxim Emelyanychev calls in his introductory note a ‘sort of musical hors d’oeuvre’. In the case of the present issue that is the Piano Concerto in A, K488, which may cause more than a few eyebrows to rise describing it in such terms. As the CDs title suggests the symphonies included here are Mozart’s very first work in the form, Symphony No 1 in E flat, K16, composed in London at the age of eight in 1764, and the last, No 41 in C (‘Jupiter’), K551, composed in Vienna in 1788. It’s quite a thought-provoking idea since it reminds us of the huge journey taken by the symphony in the hands of Haydn and Mozart, who between them took the form from being a modest three-part introduction to an Italian opera or other dramatic work to the status of magnificent concert works such as Haydn’s ‘London’ symphonies or the great trilogy with which Mozart signed off from the genre, No’s 39 to 41. K16 is indeed a classic example of the genre’s sources, a charming work in only three brief movements, its relationship to dramatic works apparent in the contrasts the young Mozart provides right from the opening bars, a commanding ‘call to attention’ immediately relaxing into a gentle, quiet legato response.

Before looking at any specific examples, let’s try to establish a few general parameters that will presumably also set the scene for future issues. I think the first, and perhaps surprising thing, to say is that these are thoroughly conservative performances.  That may sound odd but Il Pomo d’Oro, of which Emelyanychev is chief conductor, is more likely to be found in the opera house (often figuratively), where it has at times been involved with some radical performances and productions. With the odd arguable exception (the final Allegro assai of the concerto is a little fast for my taste, the central Andante of K16 a little slow) tempos throughout are sensible, while the orchestral playing and balance are excellent throughout.  Every repeat is taken, an admirable policy that here in particular allows the great contrapuntal coda of the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony to crown the immense peroration of the movement with exceptional power. For a period-instrument performance, the solo playing of the concerto is unusually conservative as to ornamentation, with only very modest embellishments made in the central Andante and no suggestion of the piano playing in ritornelli. Incidentally, the piano played by Emelyanychev is a fine copy of a Conrad Graf of 1823. There is no suggestion of a continuo in the symphonies, which one would have expected at least in the early symphony.

Emelyanychev’s playing of the concerto is fluent, with excellently articulated finger-work in the outer movements and considerable sensitivity in the Andante, which features some lovely piano string playing complemented by the beautifully tuned playing of the composer’s glorious wind ensemble writing. At times I did wonder if K16 was a little prosaic, the last thing expected from these performers, but the ‘Jupiter’ is a splendidly bold performance, with its many contrapuntal elements well brought out. Little bits of individuality include the hint of tympani drum rolls (instead of Mozart’s single beats) in the Minuet. In the Andante Cantabile (ii) the yearning motif that pervades is given a rare and ineffable sadness, while the pain that for me is never far from the surface is inflected with even greater emotion in the development. The great finale is given a thrilling drive, but not at the expense of the movement’s inherent nobility and sense of taking the listener on an enthralling, unpredictable journey that will reach its destination only in the contrapuntal wizardry of the coda.

In sum, these are highly satisfying performances that auger well for the long traversal ahead. If not startlingly revelatory, emulation of this standard will ensure Emelyanychev’s performances will make for a fine library of the symphonies for anyone choosing to collect them.   

Brian Robins

Categories
Book Recording

Early Music Bird

Maria Weiss mezzo-soprano, 1607 Ensemble for Early & New Music
67:26
1607 Records (available HERE)

First a disclaimer. When I reviewed the first CD of the Austrian mezzo Maria Weiss – a review that can be read on this site – my contact with her had been purely professional. Since that time we have come better acquainted and today I’m happy to acknowledge Maria as a much-valued friend. Generally, this would result in my refusing to review this CD, which indeed I initially did. However my mind was changed to make an exception in this case, not least for the interest of the contents, which include several first recordings, but more importantly because like the first CD this one has been entirely researched, planned and performed by Maria Weiss on her own label. It is therefore a CD that will get scant notice from the UK press. And while not without flaws it unquestionably deserves, even demands notice.

The most notable aspect is unquestionably the quality of Maria Weiss’s voice. To describe it I cannot do better than repeat my words from the earlier review: ‘Her voice is distinctive, a beautifully burnished and rounded mezzo that at the same time remains fundamentally pure in tone, vibrato being used only sparingly for expressive purpose.’ To which I would add that it is a voice that excels in cantabile writing, Weiss’s ability to sustain long lines with absolute security being one of the special features of her singing, as is her ability to shape such music with the utmost musicality. This is not to say that at the other end of the scale her singing of coloratura lacks agility or flexibility, as the lithe performance of an aria from Vivaldi’s lost opera, La Silvia demonstrates. Incidentally, both the track listing and rather flowery note on this item neglect to mention that the opera is lost, only eight arias surviving.

So it would be (and from experience I can promise is!) possible to simply wallow in the sheer beauty of Weiss’s voice and her wonderful sense of line. But of course singing, especially the singing of Baroque music is about rather more than that. In the review of the earlier CD, I noted that Weiss’s clarity of diction is not all it might be and the same observation is pertinent here. That may at least partially be down to the recording locations in Carinthia, invariably castles or churches with considerable resonance. While Weiss’s ornamentation is tastefully judged and invariably well turned it too often lacks precision and although there are a few trills, there are rather too few, those there are being tentatively sung.

As with the earlier CD, the programme is a highly rewarding one with some real discoveries. As its title suggests the theme is birds and there are a number of typical texts to which birds are introduced allegorically, doves and nightingales much to the fore. But it’s not all birds. Particularly enjoyable (and well suited to Weiss for the reasons cited above) are two beautiful lyrical Francesco Gasparini arias, both first recordings, one from his L’oracolo del Fato (?Vienna, 1709), the other from the fragment Astianatte, Rome, 1719. Another treasure, not this time a first recording, is a lovely lied from J P Krieger’s Die ausgesöhnte Eifersucht (Weissenfels, 1690), a strophic song on a ground bass and here sung by Weiss with languid longing. If there is a caveat about some of the cantabile numbers it is that they are taken fractionally too slowly, or in the most extreme instance, an ariette with horns from Rameau’s Acante et Céphise (Paris, 1751), surely taken at far too leisurely a pace. But both that and the exquisite Michel Lambert air over a ground bass show Weiss has an excellent command of the French style. The Rameau, incidentally, is not as claimed a premiere recording since there is a complete Erato recording of this only recently re-revived opera.

As on the earlier CD, the programme is concluded by two pieces involving electronic music by the Viennese composer Wolfgang Mitterer, one of which is a playful extemporization on the Krieger. But to finish I want to return to what is undoubtedly the best-known music on the disc, Ruggiero’s recitative and aria ‘Mi lusinga il dolce affetto’ from Handel’s Alcina, and specifically the final line of the main section, the words ‘che m’inganni amando ancor’ (that I’m deceived still loving). This provides a supreme example of why Maria Weiss is for me a special artist. The whole, including the passaggi, is shaped and expressed with the greatest musicality and sensitivity to arrive at a ravishing mezza voce on the final word. Such a moment alone offers ample excuse for wanting to recommend the CD to anyone enchanted by the sounds the human voice is capable of making.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Haydn – Symphonies 13 – “Hornsignal”

Il Giardino Armonico, conducted by Giovanni Antonini
80:18
Alpha Classics Alpha 692

This latest addition to Giovanni Antonini’s outstanding integral Haydn cycle turns to a trio of symphonies that fall into the category of what the notes delightfully term Haydn’s ‘horn-heavy’ symphonies. Particularly notable among these is, of course, No. 31 in D, nick-named the ‘Hornsignal’ and a work older readers may recall was a great favourite of Sir Thomas Beecham’s. There are few more thrilling openings in music than that of the ‘Hornsignal’, with the unusual scoring of four horns braying their brave fanfares with aplomb and total lack of inhibition. The symphony dates from 1765, around the time Haydn had become de facto Kapellmeister at Esterházy. There is indeed much about this symphony to suggest that Haydn was using it give the players of what had virtually become ‘his’ orchestra a showcase in which to show off their talents. The Adagio (ii) is a three-way dialogue between the horns, a solo violin and solo viola, while the Finale (Moderato molto) opens with a cantabile melody – beautifully played by the strings of Il Giardino Armonico – before proceeding to a set of variations in which cello, flute, violin and horns (of course) are all given a place in the limelight, the whole rounded off by the double-bass – a winning idea – before the tempo speeds up for a brief Presto coda. The whole symphony is in Haydn’s best ‘great entertainer’ mode, having no pretensions to profundity; it is accepted as such with relish by Antonini’s splendid players just as it must have been by Haydn’s.

Symphony No 59, known as the ‘Fire’ Symphony, dates from four years later. No convincing explanation has been advanced for the name, but it seems to stem from a mid-19th-century catalogue of Haydn’s work, where the name ‘La Tempesta’ is also associated with it. Whatever the background the name is not inappropriate, since from the outset the symphony has an unpredictability, even eccentricity about it that may recall the leaping of flames from one point to another. There is also a strong element of theatricality as in the second movement, where the steady slow march-like motif gives way to cantabile strings and later rude outbursts from the horns. The finale is a glorious romp, with horns again to the fore and, in this performance, a truly exhilarating sense of forward momentum.

Also from 1769 is Symphony No 48, known as ‘Maria Theresia’ from the probability of it having been composed for the name-day of the Austrian empress.  Again the outer movements in Antonini’s performance are notable for the high-level energy, outstanding balance, and bravura playing (horns to the fore again) that has been such an outstanding characteristic of the series as a whole, but here I’d like to focus on the exquisitely lovely playing of the Adagio (ii). Muted strings and veiled horns give the opening a distanced, in lontano impression, while mysterious murmuring broken chords evoke a nocturnal atmosphere. The silky refined beauty of the string playing is breathtaking.

This is another stellar addition to a cycle that is already well-proven to be infinitely and endlessly rewarding, each issue leaving the listener impatiently awaiting its successor.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Handel: Concerti Grossi opp. 3 & 6

Accademia Bizantina, directed by Ottavio Dantone harpsichord
217:12 (4 CDs)
HDB-AB-ST-001/2  (Available from https://hdbsonus.it/en)

This handsome set is currently available only as a 4-CD limited edition box set entitled ‘The Exciting Sound of Baroque Music’ from the website listed above. The title is a project being undertaken by Accademia Bizantina with the objective of, in the words of its founder and director Ottavio Dantone, ‘disseminating musical culture outside conventional listening spaces’.  It hardly needs saying that anything furthering encouragement of the discovery of music such as the Handel concerti grossi is obviously to be encouraged, particularly when played by an ensemble as distinctive as Accademia Bizantina. In its hands the sound of Baroque music is indeed exciting and often in ways that differ considerably from that of north European period instrument ensembles.  It is instantly more febrile, with an attack that can at times sound more spiky and aggressive, more muscular than the sound aimed at by, say, UK groups. Yet Italianate warmth also prevails where needed and one of the principal characteristics of the playing is always a strong sense of dramatic contrast stemming, I suspect, from the ensemble’s increasing activity in the opera pit. The sound of the full orchestra is at once fuller, richer and more rounded than that customarily sought in this music by most north European groups, the bass fortified by the strong contribution made by the inclusion of the theorbo in the continuo. More on that subject later.

Handel’s two sets of concerti grossi of course form part of the standard repertoire of Baroque orchestral music. Yet they are very different. Op 3 is a set of six concertos assembled mostly from works composed many years before and almost certainly without Handel’s authorisation by his publisher John Walsh, who issued them in 1734. They represent a vivid illustration of the anarchical world of publishing in the 18th century, one of which Walsh as a successful entrepreneur took full advantage. Lacking the scheme of the popular Corellian concerto grosso, the assemblage also contains errors that Bernardo Ticci has sought to correct in his new critical edition employed here. To move from one set to the other is to be aware immediately that opus 6 occupies a different sphere to opus 3, one that attains an elevated grandeur, breadth and nobility in general foreign to the earlier group, for all its charm. Composed in 1739, the 12 concertos were designed to be performed between the acts of Handel’s oratorios. Unlike op 3, they are true concerti grossi, with clearly delineated concertino (solo) parts contrasted with the full body of strings (unlike opus 3, which has oboe parts, opus 6 is scored only for strings.)

Unsurprisingly the performances of the two sets accords closely with the typical characteristics of Accademia Bizantina identified above. The playing is on the highest level, with outstanding concertino playing from the three solo players. Above all marked by the thrillingly committed verve and flair of the quicker movements, these players are also capable of finding a poise, delicacy and lightness of touch that brings to movements such as the final Allegro of op 6/6 an engaging enchantment or the profound intensity of expression that marks such as the Adagio (iv) of op.6/8.

There are few caveats. Some may find the string chording at times a little too abrupt and lacking sustained tone, though it is not something that here concerns me. Neither to any significant degree is the current predilection for tempos that tend to extremes, Dantone’s fondness for fast allegros being particularly prevalent. Just occasionally eyebrows might be raised, as in op 3/5 where in the succession of movements ii and iii, marked respectively Allegro and Presto, the beat for the latter sounds to my ears the slower of the two despite a marking that would suggest greater momentum. More serious to my mind is Dantone’s penchant for an assertive continuo theorbo contribution, a modern and unwelcome development in HIP in recent years. Early period instrument versions of these works, like the classic English Concert versions (1982 & 1984), found no necessity to include any kind of archlute and to my knowledge there is no evidence that Handel would have expected them. Here Dantone includes a theorbo – and worse still in places a guitar – in op.3 and both an archlute and theorbo in op.6. It is possible to argue that to help achieve the richness of Academia Bizantina’s bass sonorities such powerful instruments might be used to add chords. What is, in my view, completely unacceptable are the fiddly byzantine arabesques that here so often distract from the cantabile concertino or even ripieno lines.  Writer after writer in the 16th to 18th century complained of plucked instrument players with ideas above their station. It is high time their present-day descendants were put back in theirs.  

The set is handsomely produced, being in a sturdy box with individual cases for the two publications and a lavishly illustrated 128 pp book. My only reservation about it is that more space might with benefit have been devoted to notes on individual concertos at the expense of rather less on hyperbole. Notwithstanding, the last thing I would wish to do is conclude on a sour note. The performances are too thrilling, too life enhancing and too elevating to allow it. They deserve the widest possible circulation and I much hope they will become more generally available.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Mozart in Milan

Robin Johannsen soprano, Carlo Vistoli countertenor, Coro e Orchestra Ghislieri, conducted by Giulio Prandi
76:58
Arcana A 538

‘Mozart in Milan’ the cover modestly announces. Modestly because it’s not just Mozart. This excellent and well-filled disc also contains works by Johann Christian Bach, who as a young man spent some years in Italy, where he became a Roman Catholic. Of specific interest is the period he spent in Milan (1757-62) under the patronage of Count Agostino Litta and remote tutelage by the famous authority on counterpoint, Padre Martini of Bologna. Then there is the scarcely known Giovanni Andrea Fioroni, a native of Pavia appointed maestro di cappella of Milan Cathedral in 1747, and the even more obscure Melchiorre Chiesa, maestro al cembalo at the Regio Ducale theatre and later La Scala in addition to holding a number of posts as an organist.

We know from an admiring letter of Leopold Mozart that Chiesa took over as second harpsichordist after Mozart ceased to direct his new opera Mitridate (of which in keeping with the custom of the day he directed only the first three performances) at the Reggio Ducale in December 1770. Mitridate was the first product of a commission received by the teenage Mozart from Count Firmian, Governor-General of Lombardy – Milan then being in territory ruled by the Habsburgs – for three operas, the last of which was Lucio Silla, first performed in December 1772. It was for the leading man of Lucio Silla, the famous castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, that a couple of weeks later Mozart wrote the motet Exsultate, jubilate, K165. The motet is here sung by the US soprano, Robin Johannsen. Charles Burney’s description of Rauzzini as having a ‘sweet and extensive voice, a rapid brilliance of execution great expression and an exquisite and judicious taste’ might easily have been tailored to Johannsen’s performance, which is, quite simply, one of the very best of this frequently performed showpiece I have heard. The ability to cope with the bravura writing of the opening aria and concluding ‘Alleluja’ are not so uncommon, but what is rare is the care and insight Johannsen brings to colouring the text. One example must suffice; the final line of the second, lyrical aria concludes with a perfectly executed trill on the final word ‘cor’, which the singer allows to swell slightly, thus bringing added fervour to the final plea – ‘console our feelings from which our hearts sigh’.

It would be interesting to know the date of composition of Chiesa’s solo motet for alto, Caelo tonati, for it follows precisely the same form as Exsultate, jubilate, which is to say a bravura aria followed by a recitative and concluded by a cantabile largo and Alleluja. The text takes the familiar operatic metaphor of stormy seas to express the torments of the sinful soul, the second aria a plea for peace and light. If lacking the musical quality of the Mozart, it makes for a fine virtuoso showpiece, here receiving its first recording. It is sung with great accuracy and intensity by countertenor Carlo Vistoli, whose performance would be a match for Johannsen’s if he had a less approximate, more sustained trill. As it is, there is much left to admire in the astonishing bravura singing, especially the ornamentation and passaggi of the recap of the opening aria.  

The J C Bach works are Vespers pieces, the composition of which was overseen by Padre Martini and first performed in Milan, a Dixit Dominus of 1758, and a Magnificat in C from 1760, one of three settings Bach made of the text during this period. The former is also a first recording. They combine contrapuntal passages with homophony and have a typical layout, being divided into a succession of movements, in the case of Dixit clearly demarcated into choral and solo aria movements, while the Magnificat employs a concertante solo SATB group that emerges from the chorus. Both are highly attractive pieces, displaying Bach’s familiar Rococo melodic elegance grace in abundance.

Finally, we have a pair of brief choral works. Mozart’s Misericordias Domini, KV 222/205a is an Offertory work composed in Munich for the first Sunday of Lent in 1775. Consisting of only two lines of text, it alternates between the strict chromatic counterpoint of the first and the more lyrical homophony of the second. Fioroni’s even briefer O sacrum convivium is a largely homophonic setting of the sacramental antiphon with piquant harmonies, its reverential restraint fully justifying the esteem accorded the composer and suggesting his large sacred output would benefit from further exploration.

All these choral works are given thoroughly accomplished and committed performances by Coro Ghislieri under its experienced founder and director, Giulio Prandi. In the Bach Dixit Dominus, the tenor and bass soloists are respectively Raffaele Giordani and Alessandro Ravasio, the latter particularly impressing in the aria ‘De torrente’, sung with secure tone, excellently articulated fioritura and concluding with an almost unheard of rarity – a finely executed trill by a bass. An exceptionally rewarding CD that will fully engage the attention of anyone interested in mid-18th-century sacred music.

Brian Robins

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Recording

J. S. Bach Libro Primo | 1720

Guillaume Rebinguet Sudre violin / harpsichord / organ
150:00 (2 CDs in a card triptych)
Encelade ECL 2001

These two CDs of the Sei Soli are a novel addition to our experience of Bach and multi-tasking. Like Bach, Guillaume Rebinguet Sudre plays both violin and keyboard instruments: the violin is a copy by Christian Rault in 2015 of a Jacob Stainer of 1699, the harpsichord he made himself in 2015 and is modelled on three Mietke instruments (Bach is known to have travelled to Berlin in 1719 to take delivery of one that had been ordered by the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen) and the organ is by Andreas Silbermann of 1718 and was restored by Blumenrode in 2015 for Sainte-Aurélie, Strasbourg. The performances were all recorded in lock-down, and like others of that period offer an insight into how players passed that time in a series of rather introspective, self-critical solo performances. 

Exploring the resonances and implied if not entirely realised harmonies is a good mental exercise and bears out C. P. E. Bach’s comment that his father composed in his head but afterwards would try it out on a keyboard. Bach was already experimenting from the two-part inventions onwards how to develop a melodic phrase in such a way as to make it capable of being the germ of a complex polyphonic structure. Such a phrase might immediately suggest a countersubject, or be capable of inversion, augmentation or diminution. Such compositional skills had been an expected stock in trade of those early Renaissance composers like Obrecht, Ockeghem and Josquin, but reappear as key techniques in Bach’s ever-resourceful inventiveness. It was this ability to hear the implied harmonic structure of a particular melodic line that is revealed by his pupil J. F. Agricola’s comment that Johann Sebastian would sometimes play one of the suites or partitas he had written for a solo instrument on a keyboard, filling out the implied harmonies: 

their author often played them on the clavichord himself and added as much harmony to them as he deemed necessary. In doing so he recognized the necessity of resonant harmony which in this kind of composition he could not otherwise attain. 

This is what these CDs offer: CD 1 opens with the cembalo version of the opening Adagio of BWV 1005, which we hear in its violin version on CD 2.7. 

CD 2 opens with the Prelude BWV 539 which has been added to the keyboard version of the Fugue from the violin sonata BWV 1001.ii which we hear on CD 1.3. We do not know whether the transcription of the fugue for keyboard is from Bach’s own hand, and the authenticity of the Prelude is doubted, as no version before c. 1800 is known. On CD 1 the third Sonata is the cembalo version of BWV 1003, BWV 964. So we hear Rebinguet Sudre play the organ (manualiter) and harpsichord as well as the violin. He plays with a considered gravitas, emphasised when he moves to a more resonant acoustic for the violin recordings on CD 2, and offers us a take that might not have seen the light were it not for the lockdown. 

While I am grateful for his passion and dedication – not least in the very fine harpsichord he has built – I am not entirely convinced by his mystical account of Bach’s supposed state of mind as he wrote these pieces. 

David Stancliffe

Categories
Recording

Hebenstreit’s Bach

La Gioia Armonica (Margit Übellacker dulcimer, Jürgen Banholzer organ)
66:10
Ramée RAM 2101

This recording is a delightful re-imagining of a number of Bach sonatas and movements for solo violin or violoncello played on a dulcimer and organ. It is inspired by Margit Übellacker’s conviction that the hammered dulcimer – developed by Bach’s near contemporary Pantaleon Hebenstreit – was the instrument that Bach came across when a ‘foreign musician’, possibly Hebenstreit himself, came and displayed his instrument at the court of Köthen in July 1719. Hebenstreit’s instruments were made by Gottfried Silbermann and were one of the inspirations behind the development of the fortepiano, being admired by Bach’s predecessor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau, who was intrigued by the possibility of shading rapidly from forte to piano that the dulcimer offered. 

Übellacker’s instrument is a tenor dulcimer made by Alfred Pichlmaier of Fraunberg in 1997 and the organ is the 1990 instrument built to hang over the gallery in the Erlöserkirche in Bad Homberg by Gerald Woehl, after a specification by J. S. Bach for Bad Berka in 1743. 

The works presented are the sonatas in G (BWV 1019) and A (BWV 1015) for violin and obbligato harpsichord, the sonatas in E minor (BWV 1023) and G (BWV 1021) for violin and basso continuo, two movements from the cello suites (BWV 1009.iv and 1007.i) and one from Partita III (BWV 1006.i). Like other adaptations (and here I am thinking especially of the versions of the Trio Sonatas for organ arranged by Richard Stone for Tempesta del Mare, Chandos: CHAN 0803), I rather enjoy these performances: they make you listen with new ears, and the surging arpeggios seem to suit the instrument well, so for my money the Preludio in C BWV 1006.i, a version of Partita III in E or the Prelude in D BWV 1007.i from the G major cello suite sound the most plausible. 

This may be an acquired taste, but it certainly has more claims to authenticity than performances on a fortepiano. You should listen to it, and read the campaigning essay by Margit Übellacker. 

David Stancliffe

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Concert-Live performance

Opera Streaming – Vivaldi’s Il Tamerlano in Ravenna

Photo © Zani-Casadio

With the onset of the Covid pandemic, the streaming of live opera became an increasingly viable and popular way not only to bring opera to an established audience unable to attend public venues, but also to open up the genre to a new audience. Opera Streaming is the name given to a seasonal programme of opera transmissions that are freely available on YouTube. Based in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, the project draws on the productions presented in an area rich in historic theatres. Within this comparatively small region, there are no fewer than eight theatres, those of Bologna, Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Ferrara, Ravenna and Rimini. Opera Streaming has no input into the theatre production, streaming solely without interference as an ‘onlooker’. Among the works scheduled for the 2022-23 season were new productions of Verdi’s Rigoletto (from Piacenza), Die Fledermaus, given in Italian (!), and the one to which I was invited, Vivaldi’s Il Tamerlano given in the beautiful mid-19th century theatre in Ravenna on January 14 and 15, on the latter of which the opera was streamed live.

I wrote above ‘Vivaldi’s Il Tamerlano’ but knowledgeable Vivaldians will be aware that is only partially true, since the opera is a pasticcio, one of three operas commissioned by the Accademia Filarmonica of Verona for the Carnaval season of 1735. Vivaldi had been hired as impresario for the season, so his occupation in that capacity probably accounts for the reason he put on a pasticcio, one based on a manuscript of his own, Il Bajazet. From that he took the majority of arias, but added others by Giacomelli (3 arias), Hasse (3) and Riccardo Broschi, the brother of Farinelli, who is represented by two. Vivaldi was therefore left with only recitatives to compose, including several stretches of accompagnato, most notably Bajazet’s spine-chilling denunciation of his daughter Asteria near the end of act 2. Also worth noting as being of exceptional quality is Tamerlano’s ‘Cruda sorte’, taken from Hasse’s Siroe, re di Persia of 1733, although that almost certainly had much to do with the magnificent performance it received at Ravenna. But more on that anon. Tamerlano has a libretto by Agostino Piovane that had already been set by several composers, in particular Handel (1724). It is relatively unusual among Baroque operas in having a straightforward story without subplots. It concerns the relationship between the famous Mongol emperor Timur (Tamerlano), who historically defeated the Turks and captured their Sultan, Bayezid (Bajazet). Although Tamerlano is engaged to Princess Irene, he has fallen in love with Asteria the daughter of Bajazet, who has been promised in marriage to the Greek prince Andronico. The opera revolves largely around the battle of minds between victor and loser, but encompasses the moving and powerful love of a proud father who would rather take his own life, than see his daughter become the wife of his hated enemy Tamerlano.

Ravenna’s production started with two considerable advantages: the first the presence in the orchestra pit of the local home team, the Accademia Bizantina under their director Ottavio Dantone, indisputably for some years Italy’s number one Baroque orchestra, who also made a superlative recording of Il Tamerlano some two years ago with a cast that featured the same principals. This told especially in the Tamerlano of the outstanding Filippo Mineccia, who sang throughout with thrilling power and intensity, and the equally impressive Asteria of Delphine Galou, at once a vulnerable and strong character. As Bajazet the baritone Bruno Taddia was a commanding presence, even if vocally the voice itself sounded more worn than it had done on the recording and was less impressive than that of Gianluca Margheri, who took over for the live streaming. Honours in the roles of Irene and Andronico remain in the hands of the recording artists, Sophie Rennert, whose Irene equalled that of Marie Lys for command of coloratura demanded by the role but excelled it for tonal beauty, while Marina de Liso’s outstanding fluid and gracious Andronico was also preferable to that of sopranist Federico Fiorio, though the latter deserves credit for the trill of the performance (the only one throughout apart from a brief attempt by Galou). Both Giuseppina Bridelli in the theatre and Ariana Vendittelli (on CD) were excellent as Idaspe. However, without undermining some fine singing, the point has to be made that the true stars of the performance were Accademia Bizantina, whose playing under Dantone was simply magnificent.

Rather less than magnificent was the production of Stefano Monti, who also designed the sets and costumes. The basic stage set, which incorporated a fair amount of meaningless or puzzling (take your choice) back projection, was clean and uncluttered, featuring only monumental stone columns and steps on each side of the stage. I claim no expertise on the subject of the garb of Mongol warriors, but quick research courtesy of Google suggests Monti’s are pretty authentic looking. Less authentic for an era where operas were staged with bravura magnificence and brilliance was the drab impression made by the staging, predominated as it was by greys and blacks, with the odd splash of red from time to time. Nevertheless, such caveats pale into insignificance compared with Monti’s greatest blunder. This was the decision to have each character shadowed by what was termed a dancer, but in reality was a twitching, demented marionette whose activity barely ceased. The movement not only conflicted for the majority of the time with the music, but, worse, committed the cardinal Baroque opera crime of detracting attention from a singer’s aria time after time, sufficient indeed to earn several lifetime sentences. If you wish to see for yourself, Opera Streaming’s relay will be available on YouTube for six months at the time of writing (June 2023). You can catch it HERE .

Brian Robins

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Article Book

RECERCARE XXXIII/1-2 2021 Journal for the study and practice of early music

directed by Arnaldo Morelli
LIM Editrice [2021]
201 pp, €30
ISSN 1120-5741 recercare@libero.it www.lim.it

The 2021 RECERCARE contains four studies (two in Italian, one in French, and one in English), followed by, before the Summaries in Italian and English, a 21-page double Communication in Italian with 11 glossy colour plates concerning the 1590 portrait on the cover of this issue. In  ‘La “gentildama” e liutista bolognese Lucia Garzoni in un ritratto di Lavinia Fontana’ Marco Tanzi correctly identifies the noblewoman of the portrait and gives convincing reasons for attributing it to Fontana. Dinko Fabris discusses the ‘Elementi musicali …’ it contains.

Lucia Bonasoni Garzoni (b. 1561-?) was an aristocratic Bolognese lute player praised in a sonnet and two madrigals for her beauty, talent and character. Four other portraits of aristocratic women known to be by Fontana (including another one of Lucia) and two paintings with groups of women are also shown and discussed, including a concert on Parnasso with Apollo playing the lira da braccio while Pegasus romps in the background, Lucia playing the recorder, and the other eight ‘muses’ on various instruments (including a lute like Lucia’s). Their instruments and the fashionable hairdo they share are slightly hard to make out on a small page, but a magnifying glass helps. Details in the five single portraits, on the other hand, are impressive. Fabris describes Lucia’s not quite contemporary 6-choir lute and the music underneath it: a thick, open manuscript book shows a third of a page with about 5 bars of a solo voice part in contemporary notation (four crotchets or two minims per bar) on pentagrams, aligned over the lute accompaniment in tablature on 6 lines. This combination, and the horizontal format, are said by Fabris to be rare, but it isn’t clear how else lute players could have accompanied, especially if they were also singing. There is no conjecture about an actual piece. Only four syllables are clear, which is unfortunate, and perhaps why guessing the two words involves fortuity or lack thereof: [pr-]ovida, [impr-]ovida, [a-]vida or [ar?-]ida +  for[-tuna] or sor[-te]. A singer might recognize the fragment!   

In ‘Polso e musica negli scritti di teoria musicale tra la fine del Quattrocento e la metà del Seicento’ Martino Zaltron presents some cross-disciplinary theories of the past about pulse and music theory, showing how ancient science and mathematics (in this case medicine and music) filtered down into Renaissance theory and on into the mid-17th century. He cites Tintoris, Gaffurio, Lanfranco, Aaron, Zarlino, Zacconi, Pisa, and Mersenne. Whatever familiarity readers may have with tactus and mensural proportions, and a personal sense of the relation between one’s pulse (and breath) to a piece of music, what is unexpected is the inversion of emphasis to the medical side of the relationship. Doctors Joseph Strus (1510-1569), Franz Joël (1508-1579), Samuel Hafenreffer (1587-1660) and polymath Athanasius Kircher ‘notated’ patterns of heartbeats, sometimes associated with age or voice registers (suggesting pitch and dynamics), by note-values, using mixed values to record them for diagnoses. Hafenreffer even used a 4-line staff to place the values (from crotchets to longs) in ascending, descending or undulating rows. They curiously resemble cardiograms, and hospital oscilloscope monitors showing the frequencies and intensities of heart and lung activity.

At a deeper level, this article will stimulate readers to think of music’s capacity to reflect transient physiological humours, feelings and states of mind and how what began as a rather primitive musical physical-medical relationship was refined by musical theorists and professors of medicine. Zaltron has centered his research on musical-historical-medical writings in the Middle Ages and Renaissance at the Conservatory of Vicenza, and the University of Padua, historically, after Bologna, the second in Italy at which medicine was taught, from the 13th century.

Adriano Giardina, in ‘Un catalogue pour improviser: les Ricercari d’intavolatura d’organo de Claudio Merulo’, concludes that the eight simple but long sectional ricercars of 1567 by Merulo (1533-1604), his first publication for organ, printed by Merulo in Italian keyboard tablature, were not primarily composed for performance, but rather for teaching aspiring organists how to extemporise contrapuntal ricercars, i.e. how to do so a mente and di fantasia – a skill required in church functions. Showing examples of the contrapuntal procedures used, accompanied by simple or parallel contrapuntal voices, he reasons that their purpose was didactic. Giardina also claims support for his thesis from Merulo’s younger contemporary Girolamo Diruta (1546-1624/25), who became his student (and A. Gabrieli’s) in 1574 at the age of at least 28, and transmitted their teachings and his own in a comprehensive treatise, Il Transilvano (1593 and Seconda Parte 1609), planned and completed over several decades, thanks to a long collaboration with Merulo, who endorsed the first part in 1592. Absent a preface to the 1567 Ricercari the thesis is possible but not provable, and implicit confirmation from Il Transilvano lacking.

So I have some reservations about what Giardina reads into Diruta. Ricercars and keyboard tablature do occupy significant portions of Il Transilvano, especially in the Seconda Parte, where Diruta covers modes and strict versus free counterpoint, in some ground-breaking detail, and advocates strongly for the use of Italian keyboard tablature (closed score notation) to facilitate the approximately correct and playable reduced arrangements of vocal and instrumental polyphonic music on keyboards. Tablature ensures the beginnings if not always the durations of essential notes, omits or transposes unreachable ones, notates very few rests because each hand usually has something to do, and respects the imitative counterpoint heard even where not clearly apparent on the page. It is far from ideal for illustrating how a ricercar is composed.

In fact, the 12 ricercars included in Book 2 of the Seconda Parte (pairs by Luzzaschi, Picchi, Banchieri, Fattorini and four by Diruta himself) are all in open score. They are there to be played and are thereby didactic for players who are learning to compose. Whereas with mosaic type in tablature Merulo can stack but not stagger three simultaneous notes on a staff, with only two possible stem directions. Space dictates which way very short or missing stems on inner voice notes point – perhaps why Merulo avoids voice crossings in these ricercars. The voices can be discerned in this tablature, after some scrutiny if not quite at first sight:

Being his own publisher, Merulo must have aimed to sell his music for organ both to professionals seeking handy modal material in excerptible sections, and to learners not yet up to composing ricercars, let alone improvising them. By playing them eventually by heart, their hands and ears might also acquire familiarity with the contrapuntal techniques. To that extent every composition played is somewhat propaedeutic to extemporization. Tablature slightly confounds this from occurring as less experienced players would have had to do the analysis that Giardina did in order to catalogue the techniques Merulo used.

While Diruta gives clear rules for strict and common counterpoint, and on how to compose and transpose within the modes, he never tells his Transylvanian pupil to improvise. Learning to play a mente or di fantasia does not exclude doing so next to pen and paper or an erasable slate, and those ambiguous terms are found only a couple of times in Il Transilvano. Their primary meanings are to play a mente, by heart; and to play or compose di fantasia, inventing rather than adopting a known composition as the basis for a new one. Memorization and invention are prerequisite skills for successful improvisation, but first of all for learning to compose, which comes first.

In fact, Giardina also mentions Diruta’s inclusion of 46 of Gabriele Fattorini’s 320 examples of elaborate ‘cadences’ in 4-part open score. He tells the Transylvanian to memorize them and to play them in transposition – and they are not mere chord progressions, but contrapuntal phrases up to 14 semibreves in length, with mixed note-values from semibreves down to quavers. A repertory of these ‘cadences’ in the hands and mind might well pass for improvisations. Tablature was still controversial and rejected by musicians in 1593 and 1609. If Merulo’s purpose was didactic, why didn’t he publish them in open score so that players in 1567 would have understood them? Why didn’t Diruta even allude to improvisation in his treatise, compared to how strenuously he advocated for making keyboard notation easier to play from in tablature?

Yet, at the end of the first part of  Diruta’s Dialogo with the young Transylvanian, there is his personal account of arriving in Venice on Easter of 1574 and hearing a publicduellobetween Merulo and A. Gabrieli on the two organs of St Mark’s: they ‘dueled throughout the 18 years they were St Mark’s 1st and 2nd organists, though we don’t know exactly how. Were they improvising imitative rebuttals to each other’s improvised subjects, or did these eminent composers practice for their duels together? Diruta, already a keyboard player in 1566 when 20 years old and at 28 needing to perfect his technique in order to compete for posts, was swept away by their virtuosity – whether technical, creative, or improvisatory – and immediately arranged to study with both of them.

Extemporisation was indeed required of organists. To learn from Merulo’s ricercars, one would have had to sort out the voices in each, as Giardina has done, to note its devices. Applying the same techniques di fantasia, i.e. to an original subject, might then be within reach, especially when done al tavolino (at a table, i.e. in writing) rather than ex tempore. There is, in fact, a specific contemporary term for improvising counterpoint – contrappunto alla mente – and at least one organist, singer, composer and theorist, who dearly wanted to acquire that skill, gave personal testimony:

In the same year that Parte Seconda del Transilvano (1609) was reprinted (1622), Diruta’s contemporary, Ludovico Zacconi (1555-1627), in his Prattica di musica – Seconda Parte p. 84, writes: ‘… for however much, over time, I’ve frequented and conversed with masterful, mature and good musicians and seen how they teach their students counterpoint, I’ve never seen that [any] had a praise-worthy and easy way to teach their students contrappunto alla mente.  Zacconi came to Venice to study counterpoint under A. Gabrieli, remaining active there from 1577 to 1585. He composed four books of canons and also some ricercars for organ. If as late as 1622 he claims that ‘no one’ can teach contrapuntal improvisation, which he sought to learn to no avail, hadn’t  Gabrieli, Diruta, or Merulo himself recommended that he study the 1567 Ricercari, which he probably already knew? If so, sadly, they didn’t really help.

In ‘Dafne in alloro di Benedetto Ferrari: drammaturgia ‘alla veneziana’ per Ferdinando  III (Vienna, 1652)’ Nicola Usula does three things: he compares the Modena and Viennese manuscript versions of Dafne, Ferrari’s first dramatic work (a vocal introduction in seven scenes to a pastoral ballet); he includes his complete critical edition of its text in the Appendix; and in the framework of Ferrari’s biography he shows how Ferrari used its Viennese production as clever marketing to secure his return to Italy. It might surprise us to think of Ferrari (1603/4 – 1681) not exclusively as a composer and lutenist, and perhaps also as a singer, but equally creatively as a poet.

He frames his study in a biographical account of Ferrari’s career, starting with his libretto for Manelli’s 1637 Andromeda, his collaboration with Monteverdi’s 1640 Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and the music from his 1640 Pastor regio that became the end of Monteverdi’s 1643 Incoronazione di Poppea with Busenello’s text as ‘Pur ti miro’. As early as 1641 he dedicated his 3rd book of Musiche varie a voce sola to the Holy Royal Emperor Ferdinand III, and while active in Modena at the court of Francesco I d’Este (1644-51), and at the peak of his popularity, was hired as a theorboist to work in Vienna from November 1651. His Dafne was performed February 12, 1652 and he probably played in other Venetian-style musical dramas until March 1653.

Besides the Viennese manuscript (in the National Library), a manuscript copy is held in Modena in the Biblioteca Estense together with four other librettos. It is this later poetic version which Usula draws some interesting conclusions about. His critical edition inserts in boxes the previous readings where amended, and the quality of Ferrari’s revisions and how they affect the ballet are much to his artistic credit.

‘A newly discovered recorder sonata attributed to Vivaldi: considerations on authorship’ of Sonata per flauto, I-Vc Correr 127.46 in the Biblioteca del Museo Correr in Venice will interest recorder players, players of other instruments, and listeners, and not only for the discovery of this particular work. A Summary is not given for this meticulous study by Inês de Avena Braga and Claudio Ribeiroperhaps because its first paragraph is in effect an introductory abstract, or because its thorough presentation of comparative musical details and the arguments against alternative uncertain attributions cannot be summarized. The gist is contained in its title, and the attribution is by the two authors. They point out the salient traits of Vivaldi’s compositional style over time, selecting from hundreds of direct self-quotes found between this sonata and specific Vivaldi works (39 sonatas, concertos, sacred works, operas from RV 1 to RV 820 being listed), with 25 musical examples filling 13 pages. They conscientiously consider how often other composers knowingly or probably not, also did so.

 Therefore sifting through many sonatas by other composers showing similar traits might in the end be futile, with no end of passages ‘by’ Vivaldi and ‘also by’ others. They concluded their positive attribution after exercising profound insight into the creative logic typical only of Vivaldi but not of his copiers, in matters of style and structure, and after applying every other musicological and historical tool as well. Everyone will be enriched by their discussion because the musical traits are not only shown but explained in functional terms: how sequences, phrases, a harmonic juxtaposition, particular melodic moves or chords were used. The authors’ ‘contextualization’ strikes right to the matter of the authenticity of a work by Vivaldi.

The study goes on, in a sort of postscript, to name a few specific composers who warranted consideration as composers of I-Vc Correr 127.46 , as their music was so clearly influenced by Vivaldi’s: Diogenio Bigaglia, Gaetano Meneghetti, Ignazio Sieber, Giovanni Porta. This, too, provides the readers with a fresh discussion of their musical styles with respect to Vivaldi’s, despite superficial borrowings. It is rare that musical analysis is so rewarding to read.

Barbara Sachs