The Gran Consort Li Stromenti is a dozen and a half-strong group of instrumentalists which director and lutenist Gian Luca Lastraioli (b.1957) founded in 1993 in Florence. Their brief is to perform Italian Renaissance music. On this lively and very pleasing CD from Dynamic they perform eight balli (dances) by the lutenist and composer Lorenzo Allegri, who lived from 1567 to 1648, and is not - note - Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652) of 'Miserere' fame.
Lorenzo Allegri was a leading light - perhaps a leading lute, in fact - in the many festive productions which the Duchies of Ferdinando I and Cosimo de' Medici mounted in the first quarter of the seventeenth century … the same period and events during which (Italian) opera emerged from the dramatic intermedi; the world of Caccini and Peri. Allegri was in charge of the instruments owned by these aristocratic courts as well as a performer and composer. So his involvement in the balli was probably multiple. Certainly his intimate knowledge of the strengths and characteristics of the instruments meant a lot; he possibly also possessed a prowess at dancing and mounting spectacle. We do know that Allegri's work was highly regarded at the time.
Each ballo on this CD consists of between usually three (though the Third [tr.s 28-29] has only two) and four (though the Eighth [tr.s 12-18] has seven) brief dance movements. The first is a stately binary-form sinfonia (Allegri's term; they are galliards and gavottes); it's followed by alternating dance movements with different combinations of instruments. They are so vividly played by the Gran Consort Li Stromenti that it's easy to imagine the swirling garments, moving lights and rosy smiles of both performers and spectators; given that the musicians' emphasis is on precision and not pulse, this is quite an achievement.
For there is no fake abandon for atmosphere's sake in this production. At times the music is almost staid … listen to the middle movements of that same Eighth [trs. 13-15], for example. Lastraioli gives precedence to musical integrity and - frankly - a drawing out of the subtleties and sophistications of the music, its nuances of voice, of tempo and phrasing, over a mad rush for rhythm.
This does Allegri's music great service. He wrote dance music; this assumes movement and a degree of abandon, particularly when the circumstances of the first performances of these pieces' are considered. Yet, it'd be a shame to miss the subtleties of phrasing and structure such as the repetitions of slightly altered melodies, with constantly changing groupings. There are differently evocative textures, from lute to trombone. Strings vary in registers. Winds are soft and loud. And harpsichord, organ, lute, guitar and theorbo all expose the delicate, fine and often largely understated feelings of the music.
But the players here hold nothing in reserve. They do not undersell the music. The conscious decision not to present it with the sound-effect-heavy zing that might have been employed leaves us with a greater appreciation of its delicacies as well as its (more conventional) robustness than would have been the case had they overplayed its bravura qualities. One gets the impression from these performances (on the only CD in the current catalogue devoted entirely to his works) of Allegri as a somewhat studious, certainly sensitive, musician for whom focus and careful development of musical ideas were more important than effect. It also seems to be the case that the choice, combination, disposition and arrangements of instruments on this CD are the result of careful research; the outcome is happily authentic.
If you enjoy Renaissance dance music, value substance over swing and want yet another angle on the important developments in music that were taking place in central Italy at the turn of the seventeenth century, then this expertly-performed music, though mounted with a minimum of fuss, is well worth a look. The acoustic supports the music at every turn. The booklet is simple and contains only introductory material.