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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567 - 1643)
Scherzi Musicali, Venezia 1607
I bei legami [5:30]
Amarilli onde m'assale [4:53]
Fugge il verno dei dolori [3:59]
Quando l'Alba in Oriente [3:09]
Non cosė tosto io miro [1:48]
Damigella tutta bella [1:38]
La Pastorella mia spietata [2:13]
O rosetta che rosetta [2:18]
Amorosa pupilletta [3:54]
Vaghi rai di cigli ardenti [2:24]
La violetta [3:25]
Giovinetta ritrosetta [2:39]
Dolci miei sospiri [5:22]
Clori amorosa [1:36]
Lidia spina del mio core [3:35]
Giulio Cesare MONTEVERDI (1573-1630/31)
Deh chi tace il bel pensiero [3:43]
Dispiegate guance amate [3:29]
De la bellezza le dovute lodi (Balletto) [7:05]
L'EsaEnsemble, Baschenis Ensemble/Sergio Chierici
rec. 2013, Chiesa di Santi Chiara del Carmine, Massa, Italy
Texts without translations available online
TACTUS TC561309 [64:02]

Claudio Monteverdi is one of the giants of music history. His operas, madrigals and sacred music are frequently performed and recorded. Therefore I was quite surprised, when I learnt that the disc under review here seems to be only the second complete recording of the Scherzi Musicali of 1607. The previous recording dates from 1998 and was released by Naxos (the actual recording took place in 1995). A possible explanation could be that these pieces are quite different from the five books of madrigals which were published before 1607 and even more from the following collections of madrigals. It seems that these pieces share their fate with the Canzonette of 1584, the first collection by Monteverdi that was printed; Arkivmusic does not even mention a single recording of them. They are comparable in character: the Scherzi are rooted in the tradition of the canzonetta and the villanella, the less serious sisters of the madrigal. In an older book on Monteverdi, written by Denis Arnold, I found this verdict on the Scherzi Musicali: "In this sort of light music many composers were as good as Monteverdi (...)". That assessment, if shared by others, does not really help to pay much attention to them.

However, historically they are quite important. First, it is remarkable that someone of Monteverdi's reputation paid attention to this 'popular' form of musical entertainment. The songs are about love, and of a happy nature, with only a few dark streaks. They are all strophic: the music is printed with the lyrics of the first stanza underneath, and below the staves we find the remaining stanzas. It is not entirely clear whether they should all be sung or the performers have the freedom to make a choice. Fact of the matter is that both this new performance and the older recording, directed by Sergio Vartolo, omit several stanzas (and often different ones). There is certainly need for a really complete recording.

The scoring is notable, but in line with the character of the genre: three voices (SSB) and basso continuo. However, it is notable that Monteverdi included instrumental parts. That is the second reason that this collection is historically important, as it was probably the first to require instruments. These are to play a ritornello at the opening of a piece and between the stanzas. According to the performance instructions (called Avvertimenti) the two upper voices should be played by violini da braccio and the bass by a chitarrone or harpsichord or a comparable instrument.

The Avvertimenti have also something to say about the vocal part of these pieces. "The first soprano, once the first stanza has been sung to three voices with the violins, can be sung solo or else an octave lower in the stanzas which follow, but resuming the last stanza with the same three voices and the same violins." Only in a few cases a stanza is sung by a solo voice; otherwise we hear either the entire ensemble or the two sopranos. The upper parts are almost entirely homophonic and homorhythmic.

Considering the lack of recordings, I had hoped that these performances would be a worthy alternative to Vartolo's performance (which is quite good, by the way). Unfortunately, it has some serious shortcomings. The good news is that the singers have fine voices and the players do a good job. The bad news is that these qualities are largely nullified by the way the music is performed and recorded. To start with the latter: I don't understand why these pieces have been recorded in a church. The reverberation has a pretty negative effect as the sound of the relatively small ensemble is blown up. The Scherzi Musicali were edited by Monteverdi's brother, Giulio Cesare, who contributed two pieces of his own, and dedicated to Ferdinando Gonzaga of Mantua, Claudio's employer. This is chamber music, to be performed in Ferdinando's private rooms, and from that perspective not only the recording venue, but also the line-up is pretty odd. There can be little doubt that the vocal parts are intended to be sung by a solo voice, but here six female singers are involved. As a result it is impossible to shape a line individually and adapt the way of singing to the text. Vartolo, in contrast, uses soloists, and they bring out elements in the text, which are completely ignored in the Tactus recording. Lidia spina del mio core is a striking example. Moreover, as the low voice is sung by just one bass, the balance between him and the upper voices is very unsatisfying. More often than not he is almost completely overshadowed by the sopranos.

I already mentioned that only a few stanzas are sung by a solo voice. That is just as well, because in one stanza the soprano is rather shaky, whereas the soloist in another stanza has serious intonation problems. The indication that violins should be used, is also ignored. In only a few cases the ritornellos are played by two violins; in most scherzi the upper parts are taken by two recorders or by recorder and violin. In some pieces percussion is added. The participation of an organ in the basso continuo of a number of pieces is also highly questionable.

As usual, the lyrics have to be downloaded from the Tactus site, but - also as usual - they omit English translations. The Naxos site is of little help, because it offers the liner-notes to Vartolo's recording, but omits the lyrics. They are included in the booklet to the disc, but as the choice of stanzas is often different, this does not help either. The liner-notes are available in English, but I wonder who made the translation. It is hardly better than Google Translate. "[Reducing] the parts of the central strokes" - what is that supposed to mean? The Italian text reveals that "strokes" is a translation of strofe, stanzas. And "the two upper chants" stands for the two upper parts or voices. Is it too hard for Tactus to hire a capable translator?

On balance, this disc is a disappointment and a missed opportunity. We have to wait for a really good and complete recording. Monteverdi's Scherzi Musicali give no reason to be ignored. Maybe some ensemble could take care of these pieces rather than record the madrigal books for the umpteenth time?

Johan van Veen

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