The veneration of the Virgin Mary has a long history which
goes back to the middle ages and has resulted in a large number
of texts. Many of them were set to music, and often these settings
were characterised by intense exaltation. That was especially
the case with texts from the Song of Songs. The love between
a young man and a young woman in this book from the Old Testament
was interpreted as a representation of the love between the
believer and Mary. It comes as no surprise that in the early
17th century with its emphasis on the expressive these texts
were frequently set. This disc presents only a small selection
of such pieces from the Italian repertoire of the 17th century.
Even though all the composers are rather well-known, some of
the pieces are not. And the attention Robert Crowe and Michael
Eberth have given to the oeuvre of Alessandro Grandi is especially
praiseworthy, as he is an excellent composer whose music is
still in the shadow of Claudio Monteverdi.
O quam tu pulchra es is by far Grandi's most famous piece
and certainly merits its place in this collection. The other
sacred concertos from his pen are lesser known. The same can
be said of Giacomo Carissimi's concertos. He was mainly renowned
for his oratorios, and is considered the founder of this genre.
He also composed a number of motets, and the two specimens from
this genre in the programme prove their fine quality and his
ability to translate text into music. The inclusion of Exulta
filia by Monteverdi is a bit odd. There is no reason to
link this to the veneration of Mary. It begins with a text from
the prophet Zachariah, announcing the coming of Christ. But
the 'daughter of Zion' is not Mary here, but rather the people
of Israel. The Pianto della Madonna is an arrangement
by Monteverdi himself of the Lamento d'Arianna from his
opera Arianna which is now lost. Monteverdi hardly changed
anything in the music, and although the text is quite different
the piece is hardly less dramatic.
That doesn't come off in this recording, though. The other items
fare little better. Actually, there is quite a lot wrong with
Robert Crowe isn't the only male soprano: in the last two decades
or so several have tried to revitalise the singing of the male
sopranos of the past. Most of them use the same technique as
singers who are known as 'alto', 'counter-tenor' or 'falsettist'.
Some have indeed successfully extended their range into the
tessitura of a soprano. So far I haven't heard many who are
also able to use it to deliver convincing interpretations of
the repertoire for male sopranos of the 17th and 18th centuries.
The first time I heard Robert Crowe was in the opera Catone
in Utica by Giovanni Battista Ferrandini (review).
Although I had some reservations in regard to his singing I
mostly appreciated the performance. That said, I am not impressed
by his singing on this disc.
To start with, in Italian music of the early 17th century the
main issue is the text. The delivery is the number one objective
of any performance. To that end Giulio Caccini propagated recitar
cantando - speech-like singing - as the ideal. Other aspects,
like tempo, rhythm, dynamics and ornamentation are all subservient.
Robert Crowe's singing is far from the ideal of recitar cantando,
partly because his diction leaves much to be desired. Even while
reading the lyrics in the booklet it is sometimes hard to understand
the words. That is particularly the case when he uses his highest
register. It seemingly takes so much effort to hit the top notes
correctly that diction seriously suffers. The top notes don't
always come off well: sometimes they are wild and lack control,
for instance in Monteverdi's Exulta filia.
Dynamics are an important issue in performances of 17th century
music. Crowe rightly makes use of the messa di voce,
a crescendo on a single note, followed by a decrescendo. But
otherwise there is surprisingly little dynamic gradation within
phrases. That is another reason why the text expression is unsatisfying.
The choice of tempi is also very problematic. These are often
ridiculously slow. Monteverdi's Exulta filia is one of
the fastest pieces on this disc, but Crowe still takes about
40 seconds longer than Catherine Bott (L'Oiseau-Lyre). In Grandi's
O quam tu pulchra es Crowe needs almost five minutes,
whereas Philippe Jaroussky (Virgin Classics) takes 90 seconds
less. I don't know any other recording of Carissimi's O quam
pulchra es, but a performance which lasts more than 18 minutes
seems absurd. Moreover, the slow tempi result in many ornaments
becoming rather unnatural.
That leads to another shortcoming. It is absolutely true that
this repertoire needs a considerable amount of ornamentation.
However composers of the time warned against exaggeration. I
tend to think Crowe is doing too much. With a more differentiated
treatment of the text there would have been less need to add
so much ornamentation. An important ornament in Italian music
was the trillo, the fast repetition of a single note
at the same pitch. Crowe uses this far too often, and technically
it is not always perfect. It should never sound like a cackling
chicken, as is sometimes the case here. Some ornaments go completely
wrong as in the closing "alleluia" from Monteverdi's
Exulta filia. In Carissimi's O quam pulchra es
there are several ornamentations which are simply ridiculous,
like on "trophaea" and "puerperae". In the
baroque era vibrato was also an ornament singers had at their
disposal to be used for reasons of expression. Therefore it
should be used selectively rather than all the time.
The programme starts with a piece of plainchant. In a programme
of 17th-century music it is rather strange to take this from
the 19th-century Liber usualis rather than from a 17th-century
source. Robert Crowe is concerned about the way music was performed
at the time it was written. It is odd that in his liner-notes
he writes that "I chose to sing it in a way that spoke
to me". He argues that there are different opinions in
regard to the interpretations of neumatic notation and that
he is no expert in this matter. That is fair enough. But wouldn't
it have been preferable then not to sing any plainchant at all?
His performance is mannered and highly unnatural. The very slow
tempo is already an indication of what is to come.
On balance this disc is a big disappointment. The programme
is well put together and gives a good impression of the kind
of music male sopranos at the time sang. But Crowe's singing
fails to reflect the performances which were expected from singers
in the 17th century. This kind of repertoire has been much more
convincingly recorded by female sopranos. I have also mentioned
Philippe Jaroussky, who also has a high tessitura. Although
he may not reach the same high notes as Crowe, his performances
of 17th-century sacred music from Italy are far superior. I
would like to refer here to 'Un concert pour Mazarin' (review)
and 'Stabat mater - Motets to the Virgin Mary' (review).
Johan van Veen