When do you think baroque
music, as we now call it, actually started?
A daft question you might say but what
about 1605, the date of Monteverdi’s
5th Book of madrigals? Why?
The book starts in what is known as
the style antico but by the end
we have come ‘up to date’. Instrumental
parts like the basso continuo become
obligatory for the last six pieces.
Gradually in his remaining books the
idea of an aria being accompanied by
written out instrumental sections becomes
standard. There’s only a fine line that
separates Arias as here from
Madrigals. By 1623, the date
of Kapsberger’s book, recorded here,
this format was fairly commonplace -
on the continent anyway. With one voice
or possibly two, more dramatic word-setting
is possible. Kapsberger’s vocal music
has been little acclaimed but his lute
music is available on disc. This disc
undoubtedly helps to redress the balance.
Who was Giovanni Girolamo
Kapsberger? His biography can be briefly
summed up as of German extraction but
born in Venice. He was one of the most
successful musicians of his generation,
both as a performer on the lute and
theorbo and as composer. He ended up
working for Pope Urban VIII in Rome.
His output covers all genres including
Mass settings. His reputation waned
after his death and has remained in
obscurity until relatively recent times.
is mostly highly ornamental and recitativic,
demanding vocal agility and virtuosity
of his performers. In addition he requires
that very rare creature, a basso
profundo. We have one here in the
shape of the Canadian Paul Grindley.
This singer opens the disc and at first
my heart sank at what I felt was too
doleful a tone. However it didn’t take
me long to ‘acclimatise’ and indeed
really enjoy his contribution. Of the
sopranos I rather prefer the lighter
Julie Harris who, sadly, is only allocated
three works here. Generally speaking
I like the singers who capture the challenges
and beauties convincingly. The instrumental
work is, I feel, exemplary and I like
the subtle changes of instrumentation
within the arias, especially the sometimes
sudden removal of the harpsichord leaving
the archlute dramatically alone.
The excellent booklet
essay by Victor Coelho, who also leads
the group Il Furioso points out
that the vocal items as recorded can
be divided into three sections as follows:
Tracks 1-7 (texts spoken by God to the
sinner), tracks 8-12 (The lamenting
Magdalene), tracks 13-19, (Moses and
other voices of the prophets). He also
explains that this is not the way the
‘arias’ were presented in the original
publication. Indeed the entire book
has not been recorded: five pieces are
missing. A curious anomaly, you might
think, especially as the disc runs in
at less than an hour. However Coelho
explains that he wanted to record "those
pieces which stand out from a musical
and literally stand-point". Also
he wanted "to record all of the
duets and also works which offered technical
challenges, especially textual ones".
And what texts too!
Kapsberger tackles some difficult, thought-provoking
and yes, deeply philosophical poems
by men of the calibre of Petrarch. Others
are by lesser-known figures, Gabriello
Chiabrera (1619) and Giambattista Marino
(1614). An example of the mood of the
words can be summed up in ‘Tu dormi’:
"You sleep, my soul/You sleep,
alas, and don’t hear God’s high and
just words / How will you suffer, cruel
heart / Who in vain calls one who is
dying for you". Especially striking
is the last aria, a duet, with its everlasting
cry of "Why are my long suffering
/ And my fervent prayers / Denied mercy?"
Variety is achieved
within the disc by first having a different
voice or group of voices perform each
song and secondly by interspersing the
vocal items with contemporary solo lute
pieces - a very happy mix.
I would like to congratulate
Toccata as this is as good a recording
of early music as I have ever heard.
The small instrumental group are widely,
but naturally, spaced across the stereo
picture, superbly balanced and wonderfully
clear. The vocalists are placed centre-stage.
The bass notes ring out with true ambience,
and the theorbo and archlute are recorded
intimately so that every note is clear,
but not unnaturally so.
It’s true that this
music is a curious by-way of the early
baroque. Nevertheless Kapsberger is
worth investigating and I think that
he should rank as an especially significant
figure. Let’s hope for more.