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Silvestro Ganassi: La Fontegara
Le Concert Brisé/William Dongois
rec. 2017, Église Saint Jean-Baptiste, Longchaumois, France
Texts and translations included.
RICERCAR RIC395 [65:47]

One of the main genres of instrumental music in the second half of the 16th and the first quarter of the 17th century was that of the diminutions, known by various terms in different languages, such as passaggi in Italy, glosas in Spain and divisions in England. Such pieces were popular for two reasons. First, they offered the performer the opportunity to display his skills, not only as a performer, but also as an improviser, as diminutions were not written down, but played extempore. Second, it was a good excuse to perform the most popular pieces of the present and the past. Several of these are included in the programme recorded by Le Concert Brisé, such as Mille regretz by Josquin Desprez, Fortuna desperata by Nicolas Gombert and Cipriano de Rore’s madrigal Anchor che col partire.

The key figure in this recording is Silvestro Ganassi (1492-1565). He was not only active as a player of several instruments, he was also a composer, but no compositions of his pen have come down to us. His entire output comprises three treatises, of which the first, Opera intitulata Fontegara, first published in Venice in 1535, is the most important. It is about the art of diminution, which Ganassi defined as “an ornament for counterpoint”. Christian Pointet, in his liner-notes, writes: “The art of diminution consists of linking the notes of the original score with more or less elaborate musical figures, these at that time being considered as diminutions of the initial rhythmic values of the melody. Where the original score indicates one note to be played, the performer will play from two to thirty-two notes, providing a variety of rhythmic patterns and changing the shape of the melody”. He emphasises the fact that diminutions were improvised and this means that “the original score was considered as a kind of skeleton that was fleshed out with various types of ornamentation, diminution being but one of these”. The fact that between 1535 and 1620 no fewer than eleven treatises were published that specifically dealt with the art of diminution, attests to the popularity of this genre.

There are two important issues about Ganassi’s treatise. The first is that some of his instructions are rather unusual. Denis Raisin-Dadre, in his recording devoted to Ganassi’s treatise (review), writes: "La Fontegara is unique (...) in that it postulates four rules (regole) for divisions that are based on a proportional system inherited from the Middle Ages. These rules are simply a way of dividing up the basic theme: in the first rule, it is divided into four, in the second by five, in the third by six and in the fourth by seven. Such a system created extraordinarily complex rhythms and the specialised skills needed to play them: according to the first rule the divisions of the theme could be made with sixteen semiquavers, but according to the fourth rule its divisions would entail twenty-eight semiquavers”. The unusual and highly complex rhythms which Ganassi requires and his indication to vary them frequently has made scholars question whether this treatise was a speculative work rather than intended for practical use. It was reasonable for performers to put them to the test. This recording is part of a research project at the Haute Ecole de Musique of Geneva. “We have tested La Fontegara’s propositions and models for diminutions on the various styles of music that Ganassi would have known throughout his life: improvised works from the 1400s and Franco-Flemish works that dominated musical life between 1480 and 1520, these latter serving as the base for his training in motets and madrigals of the second generation during the 1550s”.

The latter is a matter of choice, and this brings us to the second issue. Ganassi offers many models of diminutions, but no compositions. Therefore it is up to the performers to choose the music which they would like to be the subject of diminutions. Raisin-Dadre, for his recording, chose madrigals by Philippe Verdelot, a contemporary of Ganassi, who also worked for some time in Venice. In addition he selected some pieces by his contemporaries. Whereas he only chose vocal items, the present disc also includes some dances. Here, especially, the sometimes unusual rhythms raise the question of whether these can be applied to dances, as they often completely change their rhythm. One has the feeling that the players are out of sync. This is of special interest as at this time dances were still meant to be used for dancing. This is not a matter of criticism; it is merely something which I wonder about.

The application of the instructions in Ganassi’s book here leads to performances which one has to get used to, as I can’t remember having heard them being applied so consistently and radically. That in itself makes this a most intriguing and thought-provoking disc. It brings up issues like Werktreue (the idea that a work has a ‘real meaning’), the freedom of interpreters, the importance of rhythm and the freedom to change it at will and the question of whether the performers should always add diminutions or whether they can still play the music as it is written down - probably with the addition of only some ornamentation, if they wish to. One thing seems clear, as is indicated in the liner-notes: the practice demonstrated here is linked “to the intellectual and aristocratic world of Northern Italy”. This means that it cannot be applied indiscriminately for the entire repertoire of the Renaissance wherever it was written and performed.

One further important element in Ganassi’s treatise needs to be mentioned. He specifically requires players to imitate the human voice. Because of that, he gave detailed advice about breathing, articulation and alternative fingerings. “If a painter imitates the effects of Nature with his colours, an instrumental player will imitate the words uttered by a human voice by employing his breath in the correct proportions, with careful articulation by the tongue and with his fingers”. It shows that at this time the human voice and vocal music were still very much the foundation of music.

This is well realised here. The performers do a great job in convincingly demonstrating the practical realisation of Ganassi’s instructions. The playing of all participants is excellent. One may regret that here wind instruments dominate; the viole da gamba only participate in the ensemble in a couple of pieces. It would be nice to hear this kind of performance practice on string and plucked instruments or the keyboard. Maybe the subject of a next recording? There is every reason to hope for further recordings which explore the art of diminution according to Ganassi's instructions.

I urge anyone interested in early instrumental music to investigate this disc.

Johan van Veen

Pierre ATTAINGNANT (c1494-1551/52)
Basse danse la Bross [05:27]
JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1455-1521)
Mille regrets [02:36]
Antoine BUSNOYS (c1430-1492)
Fortuna desperata [03:50]
[Le Concert Brisé]
Basse danse after Fortuna desperata (Busnois) [01:24]
Douleur me bat [04:27]
Nicolas GOMBERT (c1495-c1560)
Mort et fortune [03:39]
Paduana del Re [03:13]
Adrian WILLAERT (1490?-1562)
Sacro fonte [05:18]
Gagliarda del Re [04:09]
Philippe VERDELOT (c1480/85-1530/32?)
Italia mia [05:23]
Bassa danza Aliot nouvella [02:38]
Bartolomeo TROMBONCINO (c1470-c1535)
Zephyro spira [03:20]
Jacques ARCADELT (c1505-1568)
Il bianco e dolce cigno [03:32]
El Bisson [02:59]
Dezilde al Caballero [05:29]
[Le Concert Brisé]
[El Bisson] sua gagliarda (anon) [02:17]
Marchetto CARA (1465-1525)
Per dolor [02:37]
Cipriano DE RORE (1515/16-1565)
Anchor che col partire [03:22]

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