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Leonardo: Shaping the Invisible
I Fagiolini/Robert Hollingworth
rec. 2012/18, Tom Dick and Debbie Productions, Oxford; Angel Studios, London
Texts and other details online.
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from
CORO COR16171 [71:35]

A one-word review would suffice: fabulous. Or, to expand,  formidable, favoloso, fabelhaft, fantastisch … To have the Leonardo paintings and the music, not directly inspired by them, but related to them in spirit is a most enlightening experience. Actually, one work was directly inspired by and commissioned for the project: Adrian Williams’ Shaping the Invisible. The programme, celebrating the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death in 1519, has already been performed in various places; if it hasn’t yet come your way, check the details from the link above.

We open with the most controversial painting but the easiest music to choose. Salvator Mundi, also illustrated on the CD cover, has only recently been accredited and named. There remain doubts about its authenticity as a work of the master – possibly it’s largely from his workshop – but it recently sold for a stupendous price. It seems rather too baroque for me – a touch of renaissance bling, even – but Martin Kemp, who has curated the visual side of the programme, seems to have no doubts in his booklet notes and who am I to doubt the word of the Professor of Art at my alma mater? Like all the paintings referred to, it’s reproduced in the booklet and, for downloaders, the online presentation presents a clearer image.

Actually, even purchasers of the CD will need to go online for the texts – a serious omission from the booklet, but happily the extra bother is rewarded with more details, including a video presentation.

The two works which share the title of the painting come from almost the opposite ends of the spectrum of the music included here: Victoria’s 1575 setting of the Latin text from the Roman liturgy and Herbert Howells’ in 1936 of the translation in the Book of Common Prayer, originally part of the Visitation of the Sick but transferred to the Funeral Service in 1928 and the opening of the composer’s Requiem. Both offer deeply felt settings of the words ‘O saviour of the world, who by thy cross and thy precious blood hast redeemed us, save us and help us, we humbly beseech thee, O Lord.’ (The online text slightly misquotes the English in the Prayer Book, itself slightly different from the Latin.)

Better still, Howells easily bridges the three-century gap between the two settings with music clearly of its time, yet of all time. If this performance whets your appetite for the whole work, as I hope will be the case with this and several other works, there are fine recordings by Trinity College Cambridge with Stephen Layton (Hyperion CDA67914 – Recording of the Month) or the Gabrieli Consort and Paul McCreesh (Signum SIGCD281 – review review review) and for budget lovers there’s St John’s Cambridge with Christopher Robinson (Naxos 8.554649) or Hyperion Helios CDH55220 (Corydon Singers/Matthew Best – review). For a 2-for-1 album of Howells’ choral works, including the Requiem, from the Finzi Singers and Paul Spicer, Chandos CHAN241-34 would be a good bet, one of many Howells recordings surveyed in DL Roundup June 2011/2. I called it an also-ran there, but only for those who already have some of the music on other recordings.

I seem to have gone a long way around the houses – typically, you may think – before coming to the point that I Fagiolini, under the sure direction of Paul Hollingworth, offer fine performances of both works, with the advantage of being able to look at the painting at the same time. That in itself makes this an essential recording for anyone who loves art and music as much as Leonardo clearly did; he seems to have been a musician before becoming a painter. It’s as major an undertaking, in a different form, as the National Gallery’s Seeing Salvation exhibition of some years ago, the associated CD for which, on which I Fagiolini also took part, remains available on Metronome METCD1042.

But the new recording is about much more than the spiritual. There’s as much variety in the music as there is in Leonardo’s own paintings. Track three, inspired by Mona Lisa, brings us a Monteverdi madrigal. From the vast repertory of these, many of them performed by I Fagiolini (Chandos CHAN0730, CHAN0749 – review, CHAN0760 – review DL Roundup July 2009) the chosen Era l’anima mia, from Book V, 1605, is not one of the most overworked.

Those looking for a complete recording of Book V are advised to steer well clear of the Naxos recording from Delitiæ Musicæ; like several of my colleagues, I find their performances far too dull and, though it's offered at budget price, the fact that the performances on their recent recording of Book VIII run to four CDs rather then three negates the bargain. Better to go for La Venexiana on a single album (Glossa GCD920925, download only).

Inevitably, there’s a second helping of Monteverdi: the painting of The Musician is paired with the better-known Tempro le cetra from the later (Book VII, 1619) collection. Here they take the music, with its plea to the Muse to inspire the praise of Mars, a little faster than on CHAN0730, but equally beautifully. I should mention a recording by Clematis of this madrigal on a Ricercar album which I tucked away in my Summer 2017/1 ramblings: it’s recommended, with minor reservations, for combining Monteverdi with some of his more obscure contemporaries (RIC377). My recommendation for the complete Book VII, from La Venxiana, is now download only (Glossa GCD920927).

If the Victoria and Howells Salvator Mundi and the pairing of Victoria’s Unus ex discipulis with Rubbra’s Amicus meus, both from the Holy Week Liturgy a propos of The Last Supper, represent the high point spiritually, Janequin’s riotous La Guerre, presented side by side with the painting of the Battle of Anghiari, requires a very different approach and I Fagiolini dig into this representation of battle with enthusiasm. It’s a remarkable work for its time – well before Biber’s equally remarkable musical representations – and it receives an enthusiastic performance, horses, cannons and all, as does Orazio Vecchi’s equally striking but little-known piece from his madrigal-comedy L’Amfiparnassso, chosen to illustrate Leonardo’s Grotesques. The Janequin caught I Fagiolini’s imagination so much that they repeated it, sans accompaniment, on the final track. Here they really live up the literal meaning of their Italian name – they are full of beans. (I guess that doesn’t translate well into Italian, especially as I mean the expression in the UK sense, full of life. Perhaps pieno di energia would do it.)

I’m not too sure about the version of The Art of Fugue No.1, sung in the manner of the Swingle Singers to accompany Vitruvian Man, but that’s almost my only reservation about this album. I’ve no complaints about the choice of one of Bach’s most cerebral works to illustrate this painting’s academic significance, but the transition to the Janequin is a bit abrupt – perhaps it was the intention to surprise the listener; if so, it’s successful.

Whose music is better to accompany the intricacies of Leonardo’s Knot Design than that of Josquin? His L’Homme armé Mass sexti toni may not be quite his most intricate work – I’m thinking of his mirror fugues, illustrated by a cover picture of a lady with a mirror, on The Tallis Scholar’s Missa Sine Nomine and Missa ad Fugam (Gimell CDGIM039 – review – Recording of the Month: review) – but the Agnus Dei from L’Homme armé is pretty intricate. There’s Josquin’s trademark mirroring here, too, and it’s beautifully rendered here. Beautifully enough, indeed, to make the listener seek out The Tallis Scholars’ CD of Josquin’s two Masses on this theme (CDGIM019 or better value on 2-for-1 CDGIM206 – review Tallis Scholars at 30).

If anyone can top Josquin in my esteem, it’s Victoria, whose Alma Redemptoris Mater follows, accompanying the painting of The Annunciation. For more Victoria, equally beautifully sung, you need to turn only to the recordings by The Sixteen, also on Coro – it is, indeed, their own label. They offer Alma Redemptoris Mater in a slightly slower-paced recording than I Fagiolini on COR16088 – my Download of the Month in May 2011/2 – and their Victoria recordings are assembled in a 4-CD set on COR16089. COR16088 is best downloaded now from The Sixteen’s own site.

My other reservation, apart from the singing of the Bach, concerns the Adrian Williams work specially commissioned for this programme. Thus far all the music, old and newer, has been part of the mainstream and there’s a good deal of contemporary music that qualifies for that description, too. The music of some contemporary composers has taken some time to bed down for me – that of Sir James MacMillan, for example – but I’m far from optimistic that Shaping the Invisible will do the trick for me, though I do like Gillian Clarke’s 2018 poem which it sets.

Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur’s setting of words from The Song of Songs, Le jardin clos, on the other hand, while I was a little baffled by the association with the painting of John the Baptist, fits easily into the modern extension of that mainstream, sharing the intensity of the Rubbra and not sounding much more ‘advanced’.

With very minor reservations, then, I was bowled over by the visual presentation, the music, the performances and the recording, especially as heard in 24-bit sound. With the desertion of the SACD format by all but a handful of labels, that’s the version to go for; in fact, Coro offer nothing between mp3 and 24-bit quality, the latter in alac or flac.

Brian Wilson

Painting: Salvator Mundi
Salvator mundi (1575) [2:17]
Salvator mundi (1936) [1:59]
Painting: Mona Lisa
Era l’anima mia, SV96 (1605) [3:04]
Painting: Saint John the Baptist
Le jardin clos (1952) [3:46]
Painting: The Last Supper
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA
Unus ex discipulis meis (1585) [2:17]
Amicus meus (1962) [2:39]
Painting: The Musician
Tempro la cetra, SV117 (1619) [8:26]
Painting: The Five Grotesques
Daspuò che stabilao (1597) [3:29]
Painting: The Vitruvian Man
Johann Sebastian BACH
The art of fugue No.1, BWV1080 (c.1740-50) [2:30]
Painting: The Battle of Anghiari
La guerre (1528) [6:18]
Painting: Fantasia dei Vinci (Knot Design)
Agnus Dei from Missa L’Homme Armé sexti toni (c.1490-1500) [7:26]
Painting: The Annunciation
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA
Alma Redemptoris Mater (1581) [5:25]
Painting: Head of a Woman with untidy Hair
Cipriano de RORE
Or che’l ciel e la terra (1542) [5:50]
Adrian WILLIAMS (b.1961)
Shaping the invisible (2018) [10:03]
La guerre (voices only) [6:05]