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Ars longa: Old and new music for theorbo
Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo)
rec. 2018, Cooper Hall, Frome, UK LINN CKD603 [75:34]
Recent decades have seen something of a renaissance of the theorbo as a solo instrument, rather than just as a member of a continuo section. Perhaps, too, we are beginning to see the rise of a wave of new compositions for the instrument. Once the harpsichord had been accepted and appreciated - once, that is, we had got beyond the attitude which underlies observations such as Sir Thomas Beecham’s judgement that the harpsichord sounds like “two skeletons copulating on a corrugated tin roof” or the anonymous remark quoted by Percy Scholes in the 1938 Oxford Companion to Music, to the effect that a harpsichord recital was akin to “a performance on a bird-cage with a toasting fork” – once, indeed, restorers and instrument makers had ‘made’ finer instruments, composers began to write for the instrument, with the result that by the end of the century there was a considerable corpus of twentieth-century music for the harpsichord. I wonder if, perhaps towards the end of the present century, the musical world might not be in possession of a similarly substantial body of twenty-first century music for the theorbo?
On this excellent CD, Elizabeth Kenny, one of the finest contemporary exponents of the theorbo (and, incidentally, of the lute), juxtaposes - perhaps one might say ‘integrates’- pieces written for the instrument during its original ‘golden age’ as a solo instrument - i.e. the ‘long’ Seventeenth Century)- with pieces by British composers of our own time. The result is superb, engaging heart and mind alike and helped by a gorgeous recorded sound.
The music from the Seventeenth Century is by three composers acknowledged then and now as masters of the instrument. The theorbo (tiorba in Italian, théorbe in French) was also called the ‘chitarrone’, that name being derived from the Greek ‘kythara’. It seems to have been developed in Florence in the 1580s and its bright, strong sound and extended, richer bass rapidly made its use popular in the accompaniment of song and opera. Soon, however, solo music was also being written for the new instrument. Composers of such music included Kapsberger, Piccini, Pietro Paolo Melli (1579-post 1623) and Bellerofonte Castaldi (1580-1649). Later in the century, significant composers for the theorbo included, in Italy, Giovanni Pittoni (c.1635-1677) and, in France, Robert de Visée (c.1655-c.1732), Charles Hurel (fl. c.1670-1693) and Estienne le Moyne (fl, c. 1680-1723). Few, I think, would dispute the idea that the composers represented on this disc, Piccini, Kapsberger and de Visée were (and remain) the most important figures of the age, as far as the theorbo was concerned.
The pieces by Piccinini are all taken from his collection of 1623, Intavolatura di liuto et dichitarrone. Those by Kapsbereger are from his volume of 1640, Libro quarto d’intavolatura dichitaronne. The music by Robert de Visée belongs, of course, to later in the century and, in some cases, probably to the early 1700s. Relatively little of the music de Visée wrote specifically for the theorbo was published while he was alive, though it survives in a number of manuscript sources, and is therefore difficult to date precisely.
In her booklet notes for this CD, Elizabeth Kenny provides a better characterisation of Piccini’s music for the solo theorbo than any I could manage, so it is not mere laziness on my part if I quote it: “His toccatas veer engagingly between old and new: sometimes a Gabrieli-style contrapuntal canzona will pop out of a series of improvisatory chords, and sometimes chromatic passages froth with unprepared dissonances and other rule-breaking figures. Familiar chord patterns like the ciaccona and romanesca emerge with great clarity at some points and at others are teasingly buried beneath cascades of imaginative figuration”. Kenny plays Piccini’s work with great insight and sympathy and proves to be an outstanding advocate for his music, in these subtle and persuasive interpretations.
Kapsberger was the son of an aristocratic military officer of the imperial House of Austria who seems to have settled in Venice. He is sometimes referred to by the Italian version of his forenames – Giovanni Girolamo – and sometimes by the German originals of those names – Johann Hieronymus, and seems to have lived all his life in Italy, initially in Venice, the city of his birth, and later, from 1604/5, in Rome. He perhaps did even more than Piccini to put the case for the theorbo as a solo instrument. He wrote extensively for the instrument, publishing four collections of music for the chitarrone/theorbo in 1604, 1616, 1626 and 1640; those of 1616 and 1626 are now, unfortunately, lost. Most of what he wrote for the instruments demands a good deal of the player, including much broken figuration as well as unusual rhythms, slurred passages and plentiful syncopation. Virtuoso/virtuosa (?) that she is, Elizbeth Kenny is up to all the music’s demands and must, I think, be ranked alongside Jonas Nordberg as one of the best contemporary interpreters of this music.
Kenny’s performances of Piccini and Kpasberger here are good enough, on their own, to recommend the album unreservedly to all those interested in the music of the lute family, but they are not all that the album has to offer, of course. The music which Robert de Visée wrote for the théorbe (as the French generally called the instrument) is also of a high order, though rather different from that of such Italian predecessors as those just discussed. Whereas the music of Piccini and Kapsberger often invites comparisons with Frescobaldi, it is of composers such as Lully and François Couperin that the work of Visée most often makes the listener think. Indeed, track 19 here is de Visée’s transcription of François Couperin’s Les Sylvains. The difference in sensibility is clear if, for example, one compares Piccini’s Ciaconna (track 3) and Kapsberger’s Toccata prima (track 10) with, say, de Visée’s La Plainte (track 14) and Sarabande (track 16). The gentle playfulness of Piccini and the more robustly muscular inventiveness of Kapsberger are both, culturally speaking, worlds away from the almost neo-classical dignity of the two pieces by de Visée, which have the gravity and relative austerity of a great speech from one of the plays of Racine, de Visée’s approximate contemporary. Here, as elsewhere on this album, Elizabeth Kenny’ sense of the distinctive idioms of the various composers represented is spot on.
The three modern pieces were all written for, or commissioned by, Elizabeth Kenny. Sir James MacMillan’s Since it was the day of Preparation, which was premiered in Edinburgh in 2012, deploys five singers and five instrumentalists to narrate the story of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, the text being largely derived from St. John’s Gospel. Each of the instruments (theorbo, clarinet, horn, harp and cello), in addition to contributing to the ensemble, is given a solo within the work’s narrative and emotional structure. In her booklet note, Kenny describes ‘Motet 1’, which opens Since it was the day of Preparation, as a meditation on, or emblem of, “human fragility and sadness”. Certainly the piece is both melancholy and thoughtful. In an interview, Kenny talks about the experience of working with MacMillan and the Hebrides Ensemble and how this, indirectly, led to her commissioning a work from Benjamin Oliver (Extending from the inside). Though brief, MacMillan’s piece for the most part packs a powerful punch. ‘Motet 1’, inevitably, sounds different if heard as the opening of Since it was the day of Preparation (I know that work only from the recording on Delphian DCD34168) (review) or if heard in isolation, as here, but in or out of context it shows MacMillan using this ‘old’ instrument, ‘new’ to him, with real sensitivity. Benjamin Oliver’s piece pays less regard to the theorbo’s ‘history’. Kenny’s observation, in her booklet notes, that Oliver hears the instrument as “at times, a large version of a funk guitar” (she adds “but one that speaks to the Baroque tradition of repeated or ground bass figures”) is perhaps a slight simplification, but it is certainly true that Oliver uses the theorbo to create a sound-world very different from the one it occupied in the seventeenth century, while MacMillan seems more concerned with the meeting of old and new. Oliver has constructed an interesting piece which, the composer tells us, is one of “a series of works developed in response to the first part of Arvo Pärt’s ‘Ludus’ in Tabula rasa”. The third modern work on the album was commissioned, by Kenny, from Nico Muhly. In the interview referred to above, Kenny provides a fascinating account of her work with Muhly and how it came about: “I was doing a concert with Fretwork in New York and he’d written a piece for them, which I thought was absolutely wonderful, and we met up and discussed it. … I completed my Muhly education by listening to everything else he’d done, and it was incredibly exciting – so I just took a punt and asked him if he fancied writing something for the theorbo. It’s a very big ask for a composer, not only having a plucked instrument – which, as Julian Bream has pointed out, is a particular conundrum for people who are more keyboard- or string- or voice-based - but in addition it’s got the peculiarities of an old instrument, so even if you’re a good guitar composer you won’t necessarily get where the resonances are.
We had a session where I played Nico bits of my favourite tunes, and he played them back to me transposed and inverted, and engaged creatively with it in such a vivid way. We honed the piece a bit in Skype sessions, since New York is quite far from Salisbury where I live, and that whole process was incredibly instructive for me – things that I had thought wouldn’t work turned out to work beautifully once I’d done a bit of practice and got out of my habits. I’d been immersed in old music for twenty-five years, so the question was where I could go to extend my own sonic possibilities. That’s been wonderful with all three composers; they’ve kind of kicked me into different sound-worlds that they’ve created as a result of hearing the instrument. I don’t know how far I’ll go with this, but I’m enjoying myself massively at the moment!”.
Muhly’s Berceuse with seven variations (some thirteen and a half minutes long) is a subtle and intriguing piece, which throughout retains, but never feels confined by, the implications of the first word in its title – Berceuse (i.e. a cradle song). Muhly himself has explained that the work “is constructed around a cycle of twenty-four chords, spaced with a maximum distance between the lowest and highest notes. Each variation explores various paths through this cycle”. With its changes of tempo, its use of inversion and its variety of ‘address’ (sometimes slow and tender, sometimes hurried and busy), Muhly’s piece can serve as a particularly fine exemplar of how this old and, in some eyes, rather odd instrument provides fresh resources for the modern composer. All three pieces, by MacMillan, Oliver and Muhly, make one hope that other composers of our own time will write, perhaps in collaboration with Kenny, for the theorbo.
Elizabeth Kenny’s playing throughout is all that one could ask for; it is hard to imagine a better case being made for either the value of the theorbo’s traditional repertoire or its modern possibilities.
Contents Alessandro PICCININI (1566-c.1638)
1. Toccata III (1623) [3:05]
2. Toccata X (1623) [2:09]
3. Ciaconna (1623) [1:42]
4. Romanesca con partite variate (1623) [6:26] Sir James MACMILLAN (b.1959)
5. Motet, from Since It Was the Day of Preparation (2011) [3:13] Alessandro PICCININI
6. Corrente (1623) [1:28]
7. Toccata XII (1623) [2:00]
8. Romanesca folia con variate (1623) [3:16] Giovanni Girolamo KAPSPERGER (c.1580-1651)
9. Canario – Capona (1640) [3:33]
10. Toccata prima (1640) [6:03]
11. Passacaglia (1640) [3:09] Benjamin OLIVER (b.1981)
12. Extending from the inside (2014) [8:20] Robert de VISÉE (c.1655-c.1732) Suite in C minor 13. I. Prélude en C sol ut mineur [0:54]
14. II. La Plainte, ou Tombeau de Mesdemoiselles de Visée, Allemande de Mr. leur père [4:42]
15. III. Courante [1:40]
16. IV. Sarabande [3:25]
17. V. Gigue [2:07]
18. Prélude en G re sol majeur [1:05]
19. Les Sylvains de Mr. Couperin [3:34] Nico MUHLY (b.1981) Berceuse with Seven Variations (2018)
20. I. Cycle [1:38]
21. II. First Berceuse [1:48]
22. III. Second Berceuse [1:55]
23. IV. Scattershot [1:30]
24. V. Lilt [2:30]
25. VI. Stutter [1:33]
26. VII. Coda [2:42]