Giulio Caccini was the key figure in the emergence of the new
style which we call 'baroque'. In particular his view on the relationship
between text and music had a lasting effect on the way music was
composed. In the 'stile antico' - the polyphony of the renaissance
- the music was dominant over the text. Caccini stated that it
should be the other way round. His ideal was the 'recitar cantando',
a speech-like way of singing, which was more able to move the
soul than the 'old style'. This ideal found its expression in
particular in the monody, a vocal piece for one voice and basso
continuo. But his aesthetic ideals also found their way into the
polyphonic madrigal of his days. In particular Monteverdi's later
madrigals are evidence of that. And even the instrumental music
of that time shows the traces of Caccini's ideals in vocal music.
Therefore it makes sense to combine Caccini's monodies with madrigals
from Monteverdi's books 3, 4 and 5 and instrumental pieces for
chitarrone and harpsichord.
In order to express the meaning of the text and to move the soul of
the listener it wasn't enough just to sing the text as written
down. One of Caccini's principles of performance was the so-called
'sprezzatura', the flexible approach to rhythm and tempo.
Another important aspect was the use of dynamics: crescendi
and diminuendi on single notes - and especially long notes.
This was an important tool to express emotion. One of the
rhetorical figures which was frequently used was the 'esclamazio',
the sudden swelling or fading of the voice. And then there
was the use of ornaments which wasn't only a way to express
emotions but also to surprise and please the audience.
The Italian repertoire from the first decades of the 17th century has
always fascinated musicians and audiences. In particular Monteverdi
and Caccini have been performed from the very early days of
historical performance practice. In the 1970s and 1980s the
interpretation of their music was dominated by English musicians
and ensembles. Eminent among these were Nigel Rogers - who
played a key role in the promotion of the Italian monody -
and the Consort of Musicke. But when in the 1990s Italian
ensembles like Concerto Italiano burst onto the scene and
presented their interpretation of their own musical heritage
performances by British groups were considered by many too
bland and too polished. Nowadays the interpretation of this
kind of repertoire is clearly dominated by the Italians.
It is some time ago that I last heard Caccini and Monteverdi in British
performances. I didn't know this particular ensemble and I
was curious to find out in what way they have been influenced
by the Italian recordings of recent years. To my astonishment
I have not been able to detect any influence at all. I dare
say that the performances of Monteverdi's madrigals by the
Consort of Musicke were more expressive than those of La Nuova
Musica on offer here. And the interpretations of Caccini's
monodies by, for instance, Nigel Rogers and Catherine Bott,
are much more in line with what the composer expected than
those by the members of La Nuova Musica.
Far too little of Caccini's ideals I referred to above has been realised.
There is little dynamic contrast, and something like the 'messa
di voce' - the crescendo on a single note - is virtually absent.
There is too little rhythmic flexibility or differentiation
of tempo; the articulation is generally rather unsatisfactory.
These performances are miles distant from the 'recitar cantando',
the declamatory style of singing Caccini advocated. In return
we get something which this repertoire definitely does not
ask for: a pretty wide vibrato from most of the singers which
undermines the ensemble in the madrigals by Monteverdi. David
Bates is the exception. The performance of his madrigal 'Non
più guerra' puts us back to the 1970s.
The most disappointing thing about this recording is the lack of expression.
It is really beyond me how a line like 'He gave vent to his
grief, a hell of love, talking to the stars under the night
sky" (Sfogava con le stelle) can sound so flat and uninvolving.
Or, to give one other example, the performance of "No
more war! Pity, pity on me, ye lovely eyes!" (Non più
guerra) is pale and boring. And there are many recordings
of the evergreen 'Amarilli mia bella' which are much more
expressive. The instrumental pieces fare no better: the pieces
for chitarrone are done rather well, but the ones for harpsichord
are neither fish nor fowl.
I have tried to find positive things to say, but I can't. Even the
booklet has serious shortcomings: the lyrics of three pieces
by Monteverdi are not printed: E così poco a poco, Cruda Amarilli,
Quel Augellin. In the scoring list the details for tracks
8 and 9 are swapped: Monteverdi's 'Non più guerra' isn't sung
by James Arthur, but by the ensemble. And in track 18 five
singers are mentioned, but just one is singing.
But in the light of the level of these performances it doesn't really
matter. This disc is bland and boring - avoid it!
Johan van Veen