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Secret Fires of Love
Studio Rhetorica / Robert Toft
rec. 2015/2016, EMAC Recording Studios, London, Canada
Texts and translations included

Much has changed since the early days of historical performance practice. For many decades the use of historical instruments and performing techniques was the subject of an often heated debate. I still vividly remember endless discussions in usenet newsgroups about such things as late as around 2000. Since then, historical performance practice has been widely accepted. Today hardly any recordings of baroque music are released that are performed on modern instruments, and if such instruments are used, the performances are almost always in 'period style'.

So far so good. However, the universal acceptance of this style of performing early music and its still growing popularity has a downside: it attracts performers who have not really internalised the spirit of historical performance practice. One of its main features is the continuing research of how different kinds of music from different periods should be performed. New traditions and habits have established itself, which are often uncritically accepted and applied. Over many years of attending concerts and reviewing recordings I have often noted performances which compromise the principles of historical performance practice. Sometimes music is played on instruments built many years after the time the music was written; that goes in particular for fortepianos. However, it is in particular in the field of vocal music that I often note ways of singing which are not in line with what we know about the way vocal music was performed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today in most performances and recordings of baroque and classical operas, singers are involved who seem to have no clue of historical singing technique, and conductors are unwilling to correct them.

From that angle a disc like the present one is of the utmost importance. The name of the ensemble is its programme. In the 17th and 18th centuries the aesthetic ideal was that the performer used all the means at his disposal to communicate the text and the emotions it aimed to express, known as affetti. That concerns a number of aspects which are summed up in the booklet. "In Secret Fires of Love", the performers take a fresh approach to Renaissance and Baroque songs by treating the texts freely to transform inexpressive notation into passionate musical declamation. Daniel Thomson adopts the persona of a storyteller, and like singers of the past, he uses techniques of rhetorical delivery to re-create the natural style of performance listeners from the era would have heard (all the principles of performance Daniel employs are documented in period treatises on singing and speaking)."

The core of this approach is differentiation. The colouring of the voice (including a difference between the various registers), contrast in dynamics and tempo, a phrasing and articulation based on the structure of the text, ornamentation - all these things should serve the communication of the content of a piece and its affetti. This disc is the result of much research of historical sources and deserves the attention of every performer. Only intensive study can result in a differentiated way of performing vocal music of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The overall subject of this disc is love, as this was the dominating theme of secular vocal music of the baroque era, be it songs, cantatas or operas. The programme is more or less divided into four sections. The first includes pieces by two of the main representatives of the seconda pratica which emerged in Italy around 1600. Both Claudio Monteverdi and Giulio Caccini composed pieces for solo voice in which the text is in the centre, and the music serves to communicate its meaning and the emotion it aims to express. Monteverdi's Si dolce è'l tormento is one of his most popular pieces, and has been recorded many times. Over the years I have heard quite often how it was maltreated, with exaggerated ornamentation (or none at all), a wide vibrato, a lack of attention to the text and sometimes as a means of self-exposure. I am pretty sure that you will have never heard it the way it is sung here by Daniel Thomson, as he shows that it is a text with music rather than the other way around.

The next section is devoted to songs of the English renaissance. Two of the main exponents of the genre of the lute song are represented: John Dowland and Thomas Campion. The approach to these songs is different from that in the Italian items. These pieces are still rooted in the stile antico of the 16th century. Although in Dowland's oeuvre there are some influences of the Italian monodic style, such as in In darkness let me dwell, there is less room here for something like rhythmic freedom or strong dynamic differentiation. However, there can be no doubt that the text is highly important in these songs as well, and that comes off very well here. It is a matter of debate whether the performers take a little too much freedom, such as in Dowland's Sorrow stay. I am a bit surprised that there is so little ornamentation in Campion's The peacefull westerne winde.

For the third section we stay in England, but then with Henry Purcell. This is every inch baroque music, and as most songs were written in a theatrical context, Daniel Thomson's declamatory execution seems very appropriate. Thomas Leininger supports his approach with an improvisatory manner of accompaniment; he also adds preludes and interludes.

For the last section we move to the 18th century. One of the main genres of secular vocal music was the chamber cantata. The programme includes two specimens of this genre, by Tomaso Albinoni and the far lesser-known Francesco Conti. The approach to this kind of music is quite interesting, because such cantatas comprise two forms: the recitative and the aria. The former should be performed in a declamatory manner, and the rhythm should be taken with much freedom. Unfortunately there are too many performances in which these basic principles are ignored. It is so nice to hear here how it should be done. Again, it is the text which is in the centre, and the rhythm takes a subservient role. Thomson treats the arias also with some rhythmic freedom, and this raises the question how far a singer should go. It seems to me that the difference between recitative and aria should be kept intact. So there is probably a fine line here between doing too little and doing too much. Thomson seems to stay at the safe side, but only just. It is also interesting how he treats the issue of ornamentation. Too often singers go too far, rewriting complete lines in the dacapos. Not so here: there is quite some ornamentation, but it is all within the boundaries of what is stylistically tenable and with much respect for what the composer has written down.

I have already made some critical remarks about what is presented here. I would like to add one issue which I consider to be of great importance: historical pronunciation. My main surprise about this disc is that, whereas the performers rightly care about the importance of the text and how it should be communicated, they completely ignore this aspect of performance practice. In early 17th-century English the words "move" and "love" (Campion, There is none) were certainly supposed to rhyme. They don't in the modern English used here.

All said and done, this is a highly important and interesting release. What is on offer here is certainly not the final word on this matter, and I don't think the performers pretend it is. It should be taken as a stimulus to research and debate. It is really time that what is written in treatises - some of which are quoted in the liner-notes - is taken seriously and studied carefully. It could change the way vocal music is performed quite drastically. It would also be interesting to hear to what extent and how what is presented here can be applied to sacred music, such as cantatas and sacred concertos. And then the larger-scale vocal compositions, such as operas and oratorios, should also come up. In short, there is much work to do.

Johan van Veen

Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Si dolce è'l tormento (SV 332) [3:06]
Giulio CACCINI (1551-1618)
Dolcissimo sospiro [2:36]
Guillaume MORLAYE (c1510-?)
Prélude (after Fantasie No. 1) [0:49]
Villanella ch'all'aqua vai [3:01]
Amor, io parto [3:48]
Philip ROSSETER (1567/68-1623)
A Galyard [1:21]
Thomas CAMPION (1567-1620)
The peacefull westerne winde [4:08]
John DOWLAND (1563-1626)
Sorrow stay [4:40]
Prelude [0:29]
There is none, O none but you [2:05]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Prelude [0:46]
If music be the food of love (Z 379) [3:42]
King Arthur, or the British Worthy (Z 628):
Fairest isle [2:13]
The Indian Queen (Z 630):
I attempt from love's sickness to fly [1:40]
Matthew LOCKE (1621/22-1677)
Prelude [1:12]
Not all my torments (Z 400) [2:16]
What a sad fate is mine (Z 428) [3:17]
Tarquinio MERULA (1594/95-1665)
Folle è ben che si crede [4:00]
Tomaso ALBINONI (1671-1751)
Amor, sorte, destino [7:57]
William BABELL (c1690-1723)
Prelude [0:41]
Francesco CONTI (1681-1732)
Dopo tante e tante pene [6:40]
Tomaso GIORDANI (c1733-1806)
Caro mio ben [3:32]


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