> The Gentle Muse [GH]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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The Gentle Muse
Amor dormiglione; Giusta negativa; Tradimento; L’eraclito amoroso; La travagliata; Tra le speranze; Pensaciben mio core; La fanciulletta semplice; La sol fa mi re do; Lamento.
Isabella LEONARDA (1620-1704)

Jubilo Gaude; Vane linge, o munde infide
Francesca CACCINI (1587-1641)

Maria, dolce Maria; Che t’ho fatt’io; Nonso se quell sorriso.
Jane Edwards, soprano with Erin Helyard, harpsichord and Marshall McGuire, baroque harp.
Recorded in St. Scholastica’s Chapel, Glebe, Sydney June 2001
ARTWORKS AW 033 [70.16]

There were female composers in the medieval and early renaissance periods. Take, for example, the Condesa de Provenza Garsenda and the Condesa di Dia in the 12th and 13th Centuries. However it was not until the 17th Century that women start to emerge as true creative artists of distinction not only in music but in poetry and in the theatre. Also they emerged as fine and well-paid performers. The three ladies focused on here are not only competent composers but at times they are each touched by genius and originality.

Australian soprano, Jane Edwards, already has two other discs on the Artworks label to her credit. Well done to Ms Edwards and to harpsichordist Erin Helyard and to Marshall McGuire for some fine instrumental work in accompanying such a sensitive singer for presenting this programme so convincingly.

There is no doubt that Barbara Strozzi stands out in any company. Over forty-five minutes of this CD is devoted to her compositions. She is surely the first outstanding female composer. She came from a privileged and wealthy background of artists and artisans. Her poet-father wrote opera libretti for Monteverdi and Cavalli. Barbara was permitted to perform her own work and she was highly praised. There are over 100 compositions and several have been recorded before not least by Glenda Simpson on Hyperion (CDA 66303) with the Camerata of London.

Barbara Strozzi is a dramatic composer as exemplified in the remarkable ‘Lamento’ with its falling augmented second and impassioned lines. At over ten minutes one feels that Monteverdi himself could not have improved on it. This one work alone is worth the price of this disc.

The CD does not however get off to a good start I feel, with a lack lustre performance of ‘Amor dormiglione’. To appreciate how this should be done one should listen to the vital and lively performance of Glenda Simpson. The text "Cupid ….. Up, up wake up now" needs urgency not a lazy mellifluity. However after that, Jane Edwards never puts a foot wrong, in what proves to be a varied anthology of cantatas and songs. If Strozzi’s approach has a debt to the Monteverdi of ‘Poppea’ and her own teacher Cavalli, Francesca Caccini is more in debt to her father Giulio and his so-called ‘secundo practica’ style of recitative and figured bass. That is not to say that she does not have a character of her own. She produced an opera in 1625 ‘La liberazione di Ruggiero’ and it is therefore the earliest known opera by a female composer. Her collection ‘Il primo Libro della musiche’ came out in 1618. There is no noticeable difference between her secular works and the sacred for example, ‘Jesu Corona virginum’. Each is strophic with ornamentation and brief instrumental sections.

Isabella Leonarda was prolific herself. She was a nun and later a mother superior at the convent of ‘Santa Orsolo’ in Novara. She wrote in all genres including 96 motets. Apparently she worked when the convent rested so as not to interfere with her other duties. The two short cantatas here are both to sacred texts.

It is entirely possible that all three ladies wrote their own texts. Strozzi came from a literary background, Caccini came from an entirely musical and intellectual family well versed in opera and Leonarda may not have had access to modern texts in her quiet convent so therefore needed to write her own.

To give you a taste of this CD I will look briefly at Leonarda’s ‘Vanne lunge’ (Be off with you deceiving world). This consists of eight four-line strophes, which develop the theme of devotion to Christ and rejection of the world, which brings contentment and joy. Here Jane Edwards is at her best. This starts with a generally elegant approach to the wide-ranging and delightfully flowing melody of verse 1. This is in compound time with its first line repeated at the end. Verse 2 is slower and more expressive with a few instrumental bars to end.

Verse 3 (My whole being feels comforted) is akin in speed to verse 1 but now in duple time and more ornamented. A gentle approach is adopted to Verse 4 in a flowing 6/8 time. Verse 5 is in a recitativic style. Verse 6 is back in 6/8 time but stronger than before. Verse 7 is marked Presto and is quite virtuosic. Again, and throughout, word repetition is important. Verse 8 (For you my Jesus victories are inevitable) is again in a strong 6/8 time. Each verse is characterised by the composer in a simple but clear architecture and is likewise followed through by the performers.

The booklet notes are excellent with a colour reproduction of a portrait of Barbara Strozzi. The texts are nicely translated. The recording is mostly successful and the acoustic is helpful. However at times I find the harp is unnaturally forward of the voice, which sometimes gives the impression that she is standing behind the instrumentalists. That said, Edwards is never obscured and the balance is always natural. [see note below]

This generously filled disc is a fascinating example of rare repertoire that should be explored by anyone interested in the early baroque.

Gary Higginson

GH writes that "at times I find the harp is unnaturally forward of the voice, which can seem as if she is standing behind the instrumentalists. Although Edwards is never obscured the balance is unnatural."

The balance with the harp (and harpsichord) in front of the voice is not at all 'unnatural': This is exactly how these performers were positioned in the recording venue and, indeed, how they position themselves when performing in concert. This sort of set up enables much greater ensemble precision as the soloist can clearly see the hands of
both instrumentalists. Of course some conventions dictate that a singer should be heard in front of accompanying instruments but disrupting the wishes of performers in this way could have a negative influence on performance quality.

Andrew McKeich



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