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Bellerofonte CASTALDI (c.1580-1649)
Le Musiche di Bellerofonte Castaldi
Le Poème Harmonique: Guillemette Laurens (voice); Vincent Dumestre (theorbo); Massimo Moscardo (tiorbino, theorbo, baroque guitar); Sophie Watillon (treble viol, viola da gamba); Marion Fourquier (Italian triple harp); Fredericke Heumann (lirone); Joël Grare (drum, zarb, bendir)
rec. 25-27 March 1998, Studio de la Foundation Tibor Varga, Sion (Switzerland)
ALPHA 320 [64:42]

This is a welcome re-release of a disc which in 1998 offered several ‘firsts’. It was the first disc released by the Alpha Classics label and it was also the first recording by the newly founded Le Poème Harmonique, an ensemble established by Vincent Dumestre with the ambition to ‘discover and introduce the public to so-called minor repertories’ in order that we might gain a more holistic understanding of the musical achievements of the seventeenth century, beyond the work of acknowledged ‘masters’ such as Monteverdi and Cavalli.

I suspect, too, that it was also the first disc dedicated solely, or at least predominantly, to the music of Bellerofonte Castaldi, the Modenese ‘Renaissance man’ – composer, lutenist, guitarist, singer, poet, engraver, artist and adventurer, satirist and swordsman – whose biography rivals that of his near contemporary Carlo Gesualdo, for colourful incident and controversy. The outspoken Castaldi’s polemical and satirical writings saw him incarcerated numerous times; a plot to avenge the assassination of his brother left him maimed by a bullet wound to his left foot. Other collections have followed Le Poème Harmonique’s ground-breaking original, including Battaglia d'amore (2007, Toccata Classics) and Ferita d'Amore (2010, Arcana).

Last October, I enjoyed Le Poème Harmonique’s programme of music by Luis de Briceño at the Wigmore Hall which was informed by Dumestre’s characteristically resourceful and insightful musicological detective work. The discovery of Bellorofonte Castaldi’s music was – Dumestre recounts, in a liner article – a happy accident, resulting from a search for new repertory for the theorbo which led him to the Capricci a due stromenti for ‘tiorba and tiorbino’ (a little octave theorbo which Castaldi referred to as ‘mia invenzion[e] novella’). This was published in Venice in the early 1620s and is one of only three extant sources of the composer’s music, the others being the Primo Mazzetto di Fiori musicalmente colti dal Giardino Bellarofonteo and the Modena manuscript which was compiled sometime between 1632 and 1671 (most likely after Castaldi's death in 1649) and contains thirteen of Castaldi’s songs.
The instrumental items on this disc reveal Castaldi to be familiar with the variety of musical styles and languages current in the Italy of his day. The recorded sound is very ‘live’, and the brief Arpeggiata a mio modo surges with restless energy and power. Dumestre’s articulation is crisp and expressive: who knew that a ‘mere’ arpeggio could express so many emotions?

Castaldi’s manuscripts contain few instructions for the performer and Dumestre indulges his interpretative independence with skill and intelligence. Follia begins like a rhetorical fantasia but soon acquires a compelling, foot-tapping pulse; Joël Grare’s percussive beat lures the listener, as the music sways between rhythmic elation and melodic elaboration. In contrast, the Mascherina canzone is notable for the vertical expanse of its sound world, within which the various instrumental voices engage in fluent imitation. A similar dynamism is generated by the fluctuating time signatures of the Quagliotta canzone.

The clarity and vibrancy of the Capriccio detto bischizzoso is typical of these performances, as is the suave flexibility of the dance rhythms. Cecchina corrente is a robust romp – the pulsating snap and click of finger on string is audible – but a percussive thud adds a sombre note to the Sadoletta corrente.
Elsewhere, there is stylish refinement. The initial bucolic robustness of the Grilla gagliarda is gradually alleviated by grace and sentiment, while the duet between high and low voices in the Capriccio detto svegliatoio is characterised by increasingly decorative detail, concluding with a lovely, gentle tierce de Picardie. Tasteggio soave – sonata prima is one of the disc’s highlights: after startling introductory dissonances, the music is infused by warmth leading to an improvisatory episode by Dumestre of stunning virtuosity and eloquence, before the listener is seduced into a triple-time dance.

The vocal items are sung with directness and thoughtful characterisation by soprano Guilemette Laurens. In Dolce miei matiri, the treble viol adds a plaintive intensity as it dialogues with the vocal line and the percussion further darkens the mood. Here, and in Steffania persuasiva, Laurens produces a lovely pure sound and dramatizes the text, making much of the words … which leads to my only ‘complaint’ about this recording: why does the liner booklet not include texts and translations, particularly as Dumestre notes that Castaldi was both a poet and a musician?

Alongside these strophic, ‘story-telling’ songs, there are more theatrical vocal items. As Brian Wilson pointed out in his Autumn Retrospective 2016, the richer vocal numbers are ‘reminiscent of the early operas of Caccini, Peri and Monteverdi’, and this is certainly true of Echo notturno which moves effortlessly between the contemplative, the rhetorical and the dramatic. Laurens, withdrawing to a veiled pianissimo, is her own ‘echo’. She employs no vibrato and her tone is appealing. But, though unaffected in style, the performance is not lacking in technical accomplishment: ornamental flourishes are precisely defined, there is a winning brightness to the sound as the vocal line rises, and the tender inconclusiveness of the final cadence is deeply expressive.
Chi vidde più lieto e felice di me? bristles with a folky forthrightness as Laurens peppers the sung line with spoken text, sighs, exclamations and exasperations. The greatest theatricality is saved for last: Laurens and the players of Le Poème Harmonique wring every expressive drop from the dissonances, contrasts and harmonic wanderings of La lettera d’heleazaria heb. A tito vespasiano. As the song unfolds, a lyrical vocal line over a repeating bass figure soothes, before urgent recitative with an elaborate theorbo accompaniment once again injects drama. Monteverdi would surely have been proud to have penned music of such declamatory power.

Claire Seymour

Track Listing
1. Arpeggiata a mio modo [1:55]
2. Echo notturno [5:14]
3. Francese lamentevole [3:42]
4. Follia [4:35]
5. Mascherina canzone [4:45]
6. Dolci miei martiri [5:28]
7. Capriccio detto canzone [4:11]
8. Quagliotta canzone [2:58]
9. Chi vidde più lieto e felice di me? [3:54]
10. Tasteggio soave – sonata prima [4:40]
11. Grilla gagliarda [1:58]
12. Capriccio detto svegliatoio [2:58]
13. Capriccio detto hermaphrodite [2:11]
14. Steffania persuasive [3:21]
15. Cecchina corrente – sadoletta corrente [1:59]
16. La lettera d’heleazaria heb. A tito vespasiano [10:35]


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