Songs to Mary - Marian motets
Ave Maria [1:58]
Alessandro GRANDI (1586-1630)
O quam tu pulchra es [4:58]
Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Exulta filia [5:41]
Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643)
Toccata VII (1637) [5:20]
Alessandro GRANDI
Tota pulchra es [5:08]
Virgo prudentissima [4:02]
Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605-1674)
O quam pulchra es [18:22]
Johann Caspar KERLL (1627-1693)
Toccata I [4:02]
Alessandro GRANDI
Hodie virgo Jesu dilecta [3:15]
Salve, salve puellule [15:45]
Pianto della Madonna [9:47]
Robert Crowe (male soprano), Michael Eberth (organ)
rec. 1-5 February 2010, Himmelfahrtskirche, Munich-Sendling, Germany. DDD
Texts and translations included

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 these performances.

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

Robert Crowe's singing is far away from the 17th-century ideal of recitar cantando.