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Pulchra es - Affetti in 17th-century Italian Instrumental Music
Il Ricercar Continuo
Recorded 2017 at the Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano, Switzerland DDD
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download from Outhere with pdf-booklet
ARCANA A118 [56:08]

The changes in the musical aesthetic which took place in the early decades of the 17th century were fundamental and influenced the writing of instrumental and vocal music. The repertoire is popular in today's early music scene, and the number of recordings is large. The present disc is just one of many that have been released in recent years. The composers who figure in the programme regularly appear in recordings and concert programmes of 17th-century Italian music. The difference with most discs is that here two instruments take central stage that are not so often featured in this kind of repertoire: the recorder and the dulcian.

The recorder was very common in the 16th century. If we have to believe David Lasocki in the article on the recorder in New Grove, the recorder did not play a prominent role during the 17th century in Italy. He mentions only a few examples of composers who specifically required a recorder in instrumental works, such as sonatas and canzonas. The reason could well be that music for solo instruments became increasingly virtuosic, and that the recorder was not quite up to the task. That does not mean that the recorder cannot be used. In the booklet, the composer Massimiliano Neri is quoted, who in the foreword to his Opus 2 sonatas from 1651 stated: "My friend the reader, please be advised that, while in the above score the instruments are indicated for each sonata, it is nevertheless up to whoever so chooses to change them in proportion according to his own taste, and in relation to convenience".

The dulcian is an early form of what was to become the bassoon. Its origin is not quite clear, but in the 16th century it was used for the enforcement of the lower end of ensembles of wind instruments. After 1600, in some sonatas a bass instrument was given parts that were hardly less virtuosic than parts for, for instance, the cornett or the violin. Often, it was left to the performer to choose the instrument. Dario Castello was one of the composers who specifically required the dulcian - or fagotto - in his two collections of sonatas which he published under the title of Sonate concertate.

The titles of most pieces in the programme don't specifically indicate which instruments should be used. The disc opens with a sonata by Castello, which does specify the required instruments: sopran e trombon overo violeta. The word sopran refers to any treble instrument, and that includes the recorder. The other part is intended for a low instrument. The trombon (or sackbut) was a very common instrument at the time, and a fixed part of ensembles of cornetts and sackbuts. It was increasingly given virtuosic solo parts, for instance by Castello in his two collections of Sonate concertate (1621 and 1629). Here the performers have chosen the second option: the word violeta could refer to several string instruments, including the cello. Giuseppe Colombi uses the general word basso, which justifies several options. As he was a violinist, a string bass seems to be the most obvious one (that is the choice of the performers), but a dulcian seems legitimate as well. Rognoni Teaggio mentions simply soprano overo tenore, which gives the performers a large amount of freedom. Giulia Genini could have chosen the recorder, but opted for the tenor dulcian instead.

The fact that composers mostly left it to the performers to choose the instruments does not mean that every line-up is logical or leads to a satisfying performance. Bartolomeo de Selma y Salaverde, for instance, was a bassoon player himself, and from that angle the choice of a cello for the performance of his diminutions of Palestrina's madrigal Vestiva i colli is not the most obvious. His Canzon a 2 bassi may well be intended for two bassoons; here the second part is played on the cello. Marco Uccellini was a violinist; he was the first composer to publish a collection of sonatas exclusively intended for the violin. His music is clearly violinistic in character, and the performance of his Sonata VII on the alto dulcian is not the most satisfying part of this disc. Even less convincing is the performance of Pandolfi Mealli's Sonata IV on the recorder. It is part of a collection of violin sonatas, and the nature of these sonatas almost exclude any other instrument. Giulia Genini has to go to the upper end of the tessitura to play some notes; it does not sound very nice. I have heard some of these sonatas on the recorder before, and never this option has satisfied me.

I have also some doubts about the use of a cello in this repertoire. Alessandro Palmeri plays an anonymous Italian instrument from the 18th century. However, it is very unlikely that this kind of cello existed for most of the 17th century. It was rather the viola da gamba or the bass violin (often called violone) that was used as string bass. The latter is also mentioned in Vitali's collection of Partite sopra diverse sonate per il violone of around 1680.

There is nothing wrong with the playing of these three artists as such. Genini, Palmeri and Michele Pasotti (archlute and theorbo) deliver fine performances, and the programme offers much variety. Moreover, it does not happen that often that a dulcian can be heard in a solo role. It is just that in some pieces the choice of instruments is not entirely satisfying. This prevents me from unequivocally recommending this disc.

Lastly, a word of caution about the booklet. It lists the instruments as well as the sources from which the pieces are taken. That is nice, but unfortunately the list of sources has been mixed up from (06) onwards.
Johan van Veen

Dario CASTELLO (1602-1631)
Sonata VI a doi, sopran e trombon overo violeta [04:30]
Giovanni Antonio BERTOLI (1598-after 1645)
Sonata I [06:02]
Giuseppe COLOMBI (1635-1694)
Chiacona a basso solo [02:32]
Francesco ROGNONI TAEGGIO (c1585-after 1626)
Pulchra es amica mea, motetto del Palestrina passeggiato per il soprano overo tenore [04:41]
Giovanni Battista FONTANA (1589?-1630?)
Sonata II [06:41]
Andrea FALCONIERI (1585/6-1656)
Corrente dicha la Cuella [01:13]
Il Spiritillo - Brando [00:54]
Brando dicho el Melo [01:10]
Giovanni Girolamo KAPSPERGER (1580?-1645)
Canzona I [03:17]
Giovanni Battista VITALI (1632-1692)
Ruggiero [02:16]
Giovanni Antonio PANDOLFI MEALLI (1624-1687?)
Sonata IV in d minor, op. 4,4 'La Biancuccia' [06:37]
Marco UCCELLINI (1603?-1680)
Sonata VII a violino e basso detta 'La Prosperina' [02:48]
Bartolomeo DE SELMA Y SALAVERDE (1595?-after 1638)
Vestiva i colli - passeggiato a basso solo [04:07]
La suave melodia [02:15]
Aria VI a violino solo [02:17]
Corrente XVIII a violino solo [00:50]
Corrente XIII a violino solo [00:46]
Canzon a 2 bassi [03:02]

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