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Barbara STROZZI (1619-c.1664)
La Virtuosissima cantatrice

Merci di voi [5.30]; Noiosa Iontananza: Dimmi dove sei [3.37]; La tre Gratia a venere [3.03]; Gl’occhi superbi [3.47]; Amor dormoglione [2.16]; Begli occhi [4.36]; Anuma del moi core [4.43]; Sete pur fastidioso [3.19]; I baci [2.38]; Sino alla morte [14.14]; Mordeva un bianco lino [3.32]; Godere e tacere [3.4]; Canto di bella bocca [5.49]; Liberta: Non ci Iusinghi piu [3.24]
Musica Secreta (Deborah Roberts (soprano); Suzie le Blanc (soprano); Mary Nichols (alto); Kasia Elsner (theorbo); John Toll (harpsichord)
rec. Forde Abbey, Dorset, November 1992. DDD
AMON RA CD SAR 61 [64.10]

This disc was originally released by Amon Ra in 1994 and has now been re-launched. It emerged about five years after a Hyperion disc of Barbara Strozzi’s solo songs - Glenda Simpson with the Camerata of London - a disc I shall be referring to again later. They recorded nine songs. We have fourteen on this present album. They have only one piece in common; that is ‘Amor dormiglione’. So there is almost no doubling up. The Hyperion, if you can find it - it is no longer in their catalogue - was CDA66303. It appeared on both CD and tape. Although there have been a few other discs comparatively little playing time has ever been devoted to her, and yet this is especially good music. So why is it unperformed? Is it because it is by a woman? If so, then this, oddly enough you may think, was not the attitude taken at the time.

Barbara’s father was a well-known poet and the whole family moved in the artistic circles of Venice. That does not mean that she gave concerts and recitals in the main centers. Instead, at Venetian social gatherings and music parties in the 1640s and 1650s Barbara and her female friends, who also feature on this disc, would have stepped forward and performed settings she had made of poetry by some of the cognoscenti, certainly male, who were sitting in front of her. I will return to the texts shortly. She had much of her music published, all in her own name - unlike Fanny Mendelssohn two hundred years later - and needed to as that was her main source of income.

Top quality female vocal groups were not at all unknown in Italy at this time. For example there were ‘concerto della donna’ of Ferrara, for whom Luzzasco Luzzaschi published his 1601 collection of madrigals in three parts. Sixteen of these madrigals were recorded by the same singers also for SayDisc's Amon Ra label in 1991 (SAR58). These were performed by ladies of nobility, a trend which had been developing for twenty years and which was picked up by Monteverdi in his early 1584 Canzonette (Naxos 8.553316).

This present disc offers us a mixture of solos, duets and trios with continuo accompaniment from theorbo and/or harpsichord … and a very welcome variety it is too. The texts are often about love, its consequences and its difficulties but not all. For example the opening ‘Merce di voi’ is all about the composing process; did she write this text herself? The translators, including Deborah Roberts the soprano who has also written the extremely interesting programme notes, offer us "Thanks to you my fortunate star/I fly among the blessed choirs/and crowned with everlasting laurels/perhaps I shall be called the new Saffo/." All texts are meticulously and clearly provided.

In ‘Canto di bella bocca’ we hear praise for performers. Remember Strozzi was both. "How sweet to hear a lovely mouth delightfully sing verses of love/Pretty, charming voice, with rapid divisions it entices you…". The words here have been delightfully expressed in both the melody and harmony. This brings us to the subject of word-painting so very prevalent in this song with its "musical lips" and "harmonious breath" and its "rapid divisions". But we find it elsewhere, sometimes subtle, as in the "frenzied teeth" mentioned in ‘Mordeva un bianco lino’. This curious little piece is subtitled ‘from the stars the tears of scorned lovers was learned the art of paper-making’! Other word-painting is more obvious and standard, such as the yearning "Oh dolci, oh cari, oh desiati baci" which is "Oh sweet, oh dear, oh desirable kisses" with its lyrical wondering line. There is also a fine duet ‘Anima del mio core’. What a beautiful and dramatic beginning ‘Soul of my heart" with its downwards tri-tone leap.

The style of this opening and elsewhere in the songs is in the prevailing ‘arioso’ language. This is a cross between recitative and aria, moving between the two opening in a free style, almost a seco-recitative and evaporating effortlessly into a little triple time section "Fountain of life", then back again. The voices wind around each other and then lead, sometimes imitated and sometimes echoing each other. As with the contemporary instrumental Canzonas, sections are short and often contrasting and only sometimes recapped. Strozzi’s melodies are her own and studded with unusual intervals, as heard in ‘Sete pur fastidioso’. They are always those of a singer/composer who is thinking of an ecstatic line ranging over the entire voice and suiting perfectly the vowel on which it is heard.

As for the performances, everything is quite delightful, the three female singers are experienced in this music and negotiate all of its turns and ornaments with accomplishment. They have good diction and are excellently balanced between themselves. That said, I do wish that recording engineers would take the recording of continuo instruments more seriously and give them more prominence in the overall stereo picture. I would also have liked a little more passion from the singers. To hear ‘Amor dormiglione’ sung by Glenda Simpson is a revelation. She throws herself into the text rolling her Rs with relish and has a twinkle in her eye and a touch of anger in "Arise, Love, sleep no more … Do not be useless, love" and so on. In comparison Suzie le Blanc is bland and very English.

All in all a fascinating release of music that is well worth studying and taking seriously.

Gary Higginson



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