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Michelangelo's Madrigal
Kate Macoboy (soprano), Robert Meunier (lute)
rec. 2016/17, St Martin's, East Woodhay, UK
ET'CETERA KTC1623 [56:36]

Under the intriguing title of "Michelangelo's Madrigal" Kate Macoboy and Robert Meunier present a programme of Italian songs of the early 16th century. Two composers figure prominently: Bartolomeo Tromboncino and Marchetto Cara. Those who have a more than average knowledge of this period in music history, will immediately associate them with an important genre of secular music of the Italian renaissance: the frottola. New Grove defines it as "[a] secular song of the Italian Renaissance embracing a variety of poetic forms. It flourished at the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th and was the most important stylistic development leading to the madrigal." It could take several forms, which are also represented here: oda, barzelletta, canzone and capitolo. In addition there are some pieces marked as sonetto, a form not specifically associated with the frottola, and madrigal.

Pieces like these were often written and performed by one and the same person, who accompanied himself at the lute. There can be little doubt that this was also the case with Tromboncino and Cara. However, both were, at different times, connected to the court of the Este dynasty in Mantua. Isabella d'Este (1474–1539), wife of Francesco II, was an accomplished singer and lute player, and most of the frottolo they composed, were intended for her.

When in 1601 Giulio Caccini published a collection of songs for voice and basso continuo, he did so under the pretentious title of Le nuove musiche, suggesting that his songs were entirely new. That is true as far as the use of the basso continuo is concerned and some tools the singer could explore in the interest of expression, such as some ornaments and the messa di voce. Two features were certainly not new: the performance by a solo voice, and the fact that the music served the text. Robert Meunier, in his liner-notes, emphasizes how important the text is in the pieces performed here. "In the Renaissance, humanist composers set new goals. They sought to move the passions and affections of their listeners in much the same way as contemporary orators and actors who used rhetoric to sway the emotions of audiences. Key to achieving the persuasive effects of ancient music was prioritizing the text over music". Among the means to achieve their aims were the intelligibility of the text and the use of different rhythms as well as the choice of mode. "When humanist composers artfully combined words and music, the result should come very close to emotional speech".

The ways of performing are different, as this recording shows. First of all, there is no basso continuo, but a slight lute accompaniment. It was the common instrument and allowed the voice to treat the text according to its content and affections. Secondly, this is music for intimate surroundings, such as the private rooms of an aristocrat. These pieces are entirely free from theatrical traits, and therefore the dynamic range of the singer is rather limited. That is perfectly realized here. One has the impression to be very close to the performers. The venue of this recording has been scrupulously chosen, as Meunier explains. St Martins in East Woodhay, Hampshire, has the size of a chapel and a relatively short reverberation time, "similar to the rooms where our music was performed historically".

So, what about Michelangelo? What does he do in this programme? The famous painter was also a poet, and Tromboncino set his Come harò donque ardire, called a madrigal. Meunier compares it with another setting by Tromboncino, Ben mi credea passar mio tempo homai, on a text by Petrarch, and points out that the former is more direct in the expression of emotion. One could say that Michelangelo's poem reflects the same ideals as that of the humanistic composers mentioned above. Meunier does not indicate how many of Michelangelo's poems were set by Tromboncino. Twelve songs from his pen are on texts by Petrarch, and he also made use of texts by Ariosto, Bembo, Sannazaro (Se mai per maraveglia alzando 'l viso) as well as classical authors.

I should not forget to mention the third composer in the programme, Michele Pesenti, although represented with just one song. He was also an important composer of frottolas. He worked in Ferrara, Mantua and Rome. A feature of his songs is the formal freedom, and Amè ch'io moro is a good specimen of his art.

Lastly, the anonymous song Se mai per maraveglia is notable for its sacred content: "If ever in wonder raising your look to the clear heavens, think, O blind people of the true Lord of paradise". It clearly refers to Christ's Passion, as comes especially to the fore in these lines: "To free us from original sin he hangs, as you see, upon the hard wood for our salvation from eternal death". However, musically it is also remarkable in that some lines are set in recitation style. Such a piece once again underlines that the difference between the 16th and the early 17th century was not as drastic as someone like Caccini wanted his contemporaries to believe.

This is further emphasized by the way this music is performed. The approach of the performers is not that different from that of the ensemble Studio Rhetorica, whose disc "Secret Fires of Love" I recently reviewed. I found a short essay on aspects of performance practice, written by the leader of that ensemble, Robert Toft, and Robert Meunier, the lutenist on the present disc. "Our aim in performing the song in Renaissance style is not to strive for antiquarian exactitude for its own sake, but rather to give the song something of its original force and freshness. To re-create that style, we have taken our cues and inspiration from Renaissance musical treatises and related sources. Composers of the time, and Tromboncino was no exception, wrote down their music skeletally. They had no desire (or need) to capture on paper subtleties of rhythm, phrasing, dynamics, tempo, or ornamentation, for they expected singers to personalize the music by supplying those facets of performance that notation could never convey. As a result, what the music listeners heard differed considerably from what appeared in print."

And that is exactly what we get here. The text is in the centre, and both Kate Macoboy and Robert Meunier aim for a personal treatment of the text. This is a very intimate recital: one has the feeling to be close to the artists, who sing and play specially for you. Ms Macooboy does sing mostly rather softly, and that fits the character and content of these songs. She stresses some important words, takes a breath, colours the words. This is underlined by Meunier, who plays a number of lute pieces by some of the main composers of lute music of the time, which are perfect complements to the vocal items.

This is a wonderful disc which requires attentive listening. Only then the depth of these songs can be fully appreciated.

Johan van Veen

Bartolomeo TROMBONCINO (1470-after 1534)
Ma ventura al venir se fa più tarda [2:18]
Joan Ambrosio DALZA (fl c1508)
Tastar de Corde 4 [1:38]
Michele PESENTI (c1470-1528)
Aimè, ch'io moro [4:45]
Marco DALL'AQUILA (c1480-after 1538)
Recercar 16 [1:07]
Marchetto CARA (c1465-1525)
Liber fui un tempo in foco [3:22]
Ben mi credea passar mio tempo homai [3:27]
Francesco DA MILANO (1497-1543)
Fantasia 42 (e Phrygian) [1:53]
Ricercar 2 [2:21]
Marchetto CARA
Mal un muta per effecto [4:03]
Ricercar 15 (senza canto) [1:31]
Come harò donque ardire [2:50]
Francesco DA MILANO
Fantasia (App. 2) (e Phrygian) [1:57]
Per dolor me bagno il viso [7:40]
Paulo SCOTTO (fl c1590)
O tempo, o ciel volubil, che fuggendo [2:09]
Francesco DA MILANO
Fantasia 40 [1:19]
Zephiro spira e il bel tempo rimena [2:43]
Joan Ambrosio DALZA
Tastar de Corde 3 [1:34]
Se mai per maraveglia alzando 'l viso [7:20]
Recercar 28 [2:10]

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