The Floating City - Sonatas, Canzonas and Dances by Monteverdis contemporaries
Dario CASTELLO (fl.c.1610-1635) Sonata No. 14 a 4 [6.18]; Sonata No. 10 a 3 [4.58]; Sonata No. 11 a 3 [5.09]; Sonata No. 5 a 2 [5.51]; Sonata No. 8 a 2 [4.48]; Sonata No. 17 in ecco [8.17]; Sonata No. 13 a 4 [7.26]
Giovanni PICCHI (c.1572-1643) Canzon No. 19 a 8 [4'07]; Canzon No. 15 a 6 [4.18]; Canzon 17 a 8 [4.18]; Toccata (for harpsichord) [3.47]; Ballo Ungaro (harp) 2.53]; Padoana ditta la Ongara [3.08]; Canzon No. 18 a 8 (transcribed for two organs) [3.33]; Canzon No 14 a 6 [4.33];
Timothy Roberts (harpsichord, spinet, virginals, organ); Frances Kelly (harp); Richard Egarr (organ); His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts
rec. 17-19 September 1997, St Silas' Church, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
First issued as Hyperion CDA67013

It so happens that whilst I was listening to this CD - originally released well over a decade ago - I was reading about the possible spying activities in Venice of the ill-fated Kit Marlowe. Then I read, in Andrew Stewarts excellent and well-informed booklet notes, that Dario Castello is also a mystery. We do know that he claimed, in his two publications of 1621 and 1629, to be a member of the Doges team of piffari or wind players, Dario of Venice, musician in our aforementioned chapel.

Clear proof that he lived and worked in the city no archival activity has yet to come to light. In fact there is no proof that he even existed although family professional wind-playing musicians of that name did live in Venice in the 16th Century. It is even suggested that his name might be a pseudonym designed to obfuscate other activities he might have needed to indulge in order to supplement his income, as did other artists at the time. The name Castello is still common in Venice. I can vouch for that having stayed there only few weeks ago with a rather grumpy landlady and her family of that very name. In any event he was a very fine composer as this CD attests. The same applies to the better known Giovanni Picchi.

When it first came out in 1997 this CD achieved many plaudits. Its not just a CD of brass music; there are several works that include strings and some solo items. The recording is well balanced as to repertoire and always interesting. In fact David Staff, Jeremy West and Adrian Woodward are some of the most expressive and virtuosic cornetto players ever to have set foot in a studio.

There are works called Canzonas and others called Sonatas. Is there a difference? Quite often a Canzona can be seen as a brief instrumental item in three or four contrasting sections usually with differing time signatures and often based on dance rhythms. These might also be polychoral, as happens in works here, for example Castellos wonderful Echo Sonata. Ah, Sonata where does that fit in? To a certain extent there is no difference. Iindeed for Picchi the terms seem to have been interchangeable. Again these are in contrasting sections frequently alternating and often in a more serious, imitative style with homophonic and contrapuntal sections.

So lets not get bogged down but look at some of these pieces all of which are played superbly and with evident musical intelligence. They are far removed from the cornetto playing of thirty or so years ago.

Taking Castello first. He was a sophisticated and significant figure and, as early as the 1620s was using bar-lines in his instrumental publications (1621 and 1629). Recorded here are seven pieces of various length and for varying instrumentation. The opening track, Canzon 19 is for a double choir (as used at St. Marks by Gabrieli before him) one of cornets, a sackbut and continuo organ and one of four sackbuts. The Sonata No. 11 a 3 is, by contrast, scored for two violins, sackbut, harpsichord and organ. Apparently Castello was very keen to specify the instruments he required. The last track, Sonata No. 13 is one of the most impressive with its regular tempo changes and instrumental colours. Chitarrone and harp are used against cornets and sackbuts. This makes a wonderful kaleidoscope of textures.

As Stewart comments in his notes, Castello, if employed at St. Mark's, must have known the maestro di cappella Claudio Monteverdi. Indeed the cornetto lines, especially at the cadence points and in the ornamentation, are very vocal and, as has often been said, the cornetto sounds like a human voice.

Giovanni Picchi was a versatile composer as is demonstrated here. There are three instrumental Canzons from his 1621 collection. Theres also a piece for two organs, which is a transcription of Canzon 18. We hear an earlier keyboard work, a Toccata, which found its way into the FitzWilliam Virginal Book possibly as early as 1615. Its played brilliantly by Timothy Roberts. There are two Hungarian-inspired pieces. One is a lively and exotic Padoana ditta la Ongara with its ground bass and its three passages of falling sequences marked, curiously alio modo. It is played on the harpsichord. Then theres a Ballo Ungaro played here, and very successfully, on the harp by Frances Kelly. Incidentally, I have a copy of both these pieces reprinted from the 1621 Intavolatura de Balli darpicordo by the London Pro Musica Edition (EK35 -1981) a collection of seven keyboard pieces. It is fairly easily obtainable. The other three works by Picchi are instrumental and include the Canzon 17 for a double choir of cornets and sackbutts.

Altogether then, this is a very fine recording. Not only is the music fascinating but the performances are special. Buy it.

Gary Higginson