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Sulla Lira - The Voice of Orpheus
Le Miroir de Musique (MarÝa Cristina Kiehr (soprano), Giovanni Cantarini (tenor), Baptiste Romain (lira da braccio, renaissance violin), Brigitte Gasser (lirone, renaissance viola da gamba), Julian Behr (renaissance lute, chitarrone))
rec. 2014, Eglise Notre-Dame, Centeilles, France. DDD
Texts and translations included
RICERCAR RIC354 [65:06]

What do you do when you bring a product to market and want to boost its sales? You tell the potential customers that it is something entirely new, revolutionary even. That is exactly what Giulio Caccini did when he published his collection Le nuove musiche in 1601. The title was pretentious: it was not so much an indication that these compositions were newly-written, but rather that they were composed in an entirely new style and were to be performed in a completely new way. The title was pretentious and so was the composer. One year earlier he was in a hurry to publish his opera Euridice, before his colleague and rival Jacopo Peri whose work with the same title was founded on largely the same principles.

Caccini was not the first to ask for a declamatory way of performing: in 1600 Emilio de' Cavalieri had published his sacred drama Rappresentatione di anima e di corpo which, according to the title page, was for recitar cantando - exactly the term Caccini used. Caccini was also not the first to write music for solo voice: Cavalieri's piece largely comprised a series of dialogues between various characters in the form of recitatives, but we can go even further back into history. The Italian humanist and poet Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494) wrote Fabula di Orpheo for the carnival season of 1480 in Mantua. The music is lost, but it is known that it was performed half-spoken, half-sung. One scene is provided with the instruction: "Orpheus sings on a hill with his lyre the following Latin verses". This very much points in the direction of what was to become the standard in the early 17th century and is most famously exposed in Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo. We also know Poliziano's description of the style of singing which was practiced by the first performer of the role of Orpheus, and that is strikingly identical to the way recitar cantando was defined in Monteverdi's time.

Orpheus is also mentioned in the title of this disc, and for good reason. He was the personification of the singer. According to mythology his father Apollo gave his lyre to Orpheus "who thus was to become the greatest of all singers, with the ability to enchant the natural world, both animate and inanimate (...)", as Martin Kirnbauer writes in his liner-notes. It is not surprising that the story of Orpheus and Euridice was the subject of the two operas which are considered the very first in history: the two Euridices by Peri and Caccini, and of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo.

Orpheus became inextricably linked with the lyre. A festival description of 1529 refers to the entrance of a musician "con una Lira cantando al modo d'Orpheo divinamente" - singing in a divine fashion, in the style of Orpheus, whilst accompanying himself on a lyre. Exactly what kind of instrument was the lyre? A woodcut from a printed edition of the Fabula di Orpheo shows that it was identified with what is known today as the lira da braccio, a bowed instrument played on the arm. "In analogy with the ancient lyre, it has seven strings, two of which lie next to the neck and can only be played as a drone. A flat bridge enables chords to be played, making the instrument ideal for the accompaniment of a single vocal part, or recitation (...)". This instrument became very popular among the educated classes and was not only used to accompany a voice but also for instrumental pieces. As it was often played extempore, little music specifically written for the lira da braccio has been preserved.

However, it had some limitations, and in the early 16th century a new form of lyra was developed: the instrument known as the lira da gamba or lirone, which was held between the legs. Its tuning allowed for a variety of chords with pure thirds and as these lay in a lower register it was possible to play music written for a vocal ensemble with varying voice ranges. It is this feature which made it an ideal vehicle for the basso continuo practice which came into existence at the end of the 16th century.

The programme of this disc illustrates the combination of a solo voice, singing in a mixture of speech and song, and a string instrument. It opens with an anonymous song on a text from Poliziano's Fabula di Orpheo. The third item, Dunque piangiamo, is again on a text from this piece. In this part of the programme we also find some frottole. The frottola was a popular form of secular song in Italy in the 15th century. Originally polyphonic it led to a form of improvised recitation of a text to a musical accompaniment. The pieces performed here are the written-out versions of what might originally have been improvised. Another popular form of vocal music, but then religious, was the lauda. Laude were originally performed in religious fraternities but found wide dissemination and were sung in many cities in northern Italy by singers who accompanied themselves on the lira da braccio or were accompanied by a group of players of various instruments.

An example of a piece specifically intended to be sung by a singer to the accompaniment of a lyre, is Tu ch'ai le corna riguardanti al cielo from Il Sacrificio, a favola pastorale by the pastoral poet Agostino Beccari (c1510-c1590). It is performed here in the setting by Alfonso della Viola, who was in the service of the Este family in Ferrara for forty years. The next piece, O begli anni de l'oro, is very different: the composer, Francesco Corteccia, wanted the player of the lirone to play all the parts while singing the upper part. The ensuing items show the further development of the art of recitar cantando until the composer who claimed to be the inventor of this style, Giulio Caccini. The last piece is particularly interesting. Here we go back in time to Jacques Arcadelt, the Flemish composer who has become especially famous for his madrigals. LaissÚs la verde couleur is a lamentation by Venus on the death of Adonis. The author of the text indicated that it was "pour dire au luth" - to be spoken to the lute. Arcadelt's setting imitates a French style of ornamentation. "Seen from this angle, "pour dire au luth" is nothing more than a translation of "sulla lira", Martin Kirnbauer concludes in his liner-notes.

In August 2013 I reviewed the first disc by this ensemble - The Birth of the Violin - and nominated it as a Recording of the Month. I am going to do the same with this second disc. It is again a model of intelligent programming, exploring a field in the early music landscape which is otherwise hardly known. Some of the pieces have probably been recorded before but most of them I was hearing for the first time. It is not only the music itself which makes this disc a winner but also the historical context. This is a lesson in music history the like of which one doesn't hear that often. The liner-notes are very helpful in gaining an understanding of what this repertoire is about. The performances are as good as one would wish. MarÝa-Cristina Kiehr is a seasoned interpreter of this kind of music, and she proves again how well she is at home in the music of the 16th and 17th centuries. O stella matutina by Dammonis is a good example of her art. Giovanni Cantarini is a new name to me. I have greatly enjoyed his performances - Razzi's O Gies¨ dolce is particularly beautiful - and hope to hear more from him. The playing of the various instruments - the lirone and the lira da braccio in particular - is first-class and considerably contributes to the impact of this disc.

The combination of repertoire, performance and high production standards - which include texts and translations - makes this a disc not to be missed.

Johan van Veen

Udite, selve, mie dolce parole [6:26]
Alessandro DEMOFONTE (?-?)
Vidi, hor cogliendo rose [4:21]
Dunque, piangiamo, o sconsolata lira [5:15]
Bartolomeo TROMBONCINO (1470-1535)
Cresce la pena mia [3:22]
Romanesca & Passamezzo de lira [3:04]
Serafino RAZZI (1531-1611)
O Gies¨ dolce [4:52]
Innocentius DAMMONIS (?-1531)
O stella matutina [3:40]
Pianzetti, christiani [2:04]
Giacomo FOGLIANO (1468-1548)
Vengo a te, madre Maria [4:23]
Alfonso DELLA VIOLA (c1508-c1574)
Tu ch'ai le corna riguardanti al cielo [3:08]
Francesco CORTECCIA (1502-1571)
O begli anni de l'oro [5:00]
Sigismondo D'INDIA (c1582-1629)
Com'Ŕ soave cosa [2:05]
Claudio SARACINI (1586-1630)
Udite, o ninfe [1:05]
Alessandro STRIGGIO (c1536-1592)
Madonna, il vostro petto [2:58]
Sigismondo D'INDIA
Occhi convien morire [2:38]
Giulio CACCINI (1551-1618)
Funeste piaggie [6:03]
Jacques ARCADELT (1507-1568)
LaissÚs la verde couleur [4:38]



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