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L’Arte di diminuire
Leonor de Lera, Ignacio Ramal (baroque violin); Rodney Prada (viola basso, viola bastarda); Josep María Martí (theorbo, baroque guitar); Javier Núñez (harpsichord, chest organ)
L’Estro d’Orfeo/Leonor de Lera
rec. 2019, Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy

Diminutions: ‘the art of extemporary embellishment or melodic variation’. According to Grove, diminutions ‘served to decorate the transition from one note of a melody to the next with passage-work, giving scope for virtuoso display’. In the 16th- and 17th-centuries numerous treatises and instruction books were written, setting out principles and providing tables of formulae which musicians learned and applied in performances of both instrumental and vocal music. Extant written-out exemplars reveal that, in practice, diminutions were often combined with specific ornaments, decorating repeated melodies and strophic forms and effectively creating musical ‘variations’. In the late Baroque, composers in France and Germany became more fastidious about notating the ornaments considered tasteful and appropriate; but in Italy, extempore diminutions were judged an interpretative necessity, especially for the slow movements of the new forms of sonata and concerto, and for da capo repeats.

This recording by Leonor de Lera’s L’Estro d’Orfeo both celebrates and sustains that art of diminution. L’Arte di diminuire comprises diverse compositions which fall into three general categories: those written on motets and madrigals; those which explore newly emerging instrumental forms such as the sonata, canzona, aria and variations which were based upon popular songs, dances and ground basses; and original works written by members of L’Estro d’Orfeo, continuing the practices of their 17th-century performer-composer predecessors.

This innate diversity is welcome. There is a risk that the conventions that the disc honours might throw a blanket of ‘sameness’ across the constituent parts, though this is perhaps only a danger in hands of the less-than-masterly performer and interpreter. That’s certainly not the case here, where, if there is a cohering affinity between the assembled compositions and the manner of performance, it only serves to attest to the veracity and authority of the ensemble’s style and execution. Indeed, it is the contrasts that make the most striking impression. In addition to the opposing ambience of diminutions written on well-known motets and madrigals respectively, there are diverse textures and instrumental sonorities, and countless types of diminution, all of which strive for a different expressive effect: delicacy or majesty, gravity or nonchalance.

Some names truly stand out, though. Francesco Rognoni, who, Grove suggests, was born in the second half of the 16th century, was director of instrumental music to the governor of Milan. In 1614 he published his first violin treatise, Aggiunta del scolaro di violino & altri strumenti, now lost but probably expanded in the subsequent Selva de varii passaggi, the second part of which is devoted to wind and string instruments, where the violin is distinguished by its ‘harsh and rasping’ sound which must be mitigated by gentle bowing. The concepts of lireggiare and archeggiare (playing several notes in a single bow) are differentiated, and ornaments are illustrated with references to exemplifying compositions.

Rognoni’s Vestiva i colli. Modo difficile per suonar alla bastarda also illustrates the alla bastarda style, favoured in Italy from 1580 to 1630, in which a polyphonic composition such as a madrigal was performed by a single instrumentalist, retaining the original range but cascading the diminutions throughout the voices and adding further embellishments, thereby creating new counterpoint and dialogues. The viola bastarda, Rognoni tells us, was the ‘queen’ of instruments for playing diminutions as, half-way in size between a tenor and bass viol, its extended range enabled an instrumentalist to play multiple lines of counterpoint, all of which presented diminutions, but the style could also be performed on ‘organs, lutes, harps and similar instruments’. Rodney Prada brilliantly demonstrates the range and versality of the viola bastarda, the melody opening brightly in the upper ranges and plunging darkly to the bass tones. The ensuing variations pulse with growing energy, propelled by the glowing resonance of Josep María Martí’s theorbo, which later adds its own counterpoint. Soulful melodising, virtuosity, decorousness and dynamism are all allied to a single expressive goal. It’s spellbinding, and who wouldn’t hear a smile of satisfaction in the gloriously rich sweep of the theorbo concluding chord.

Girolamo dalla Casa’s Petit Jacquet da sonar con la Viola Bastarda is taken from his Il vero modo di diminuir (1584), the earliest treatise to use the term ‘viola bastarda’. Dalla Casa suggested the lute as a suitable accompanying instrument, but some viola bastarda diminutions were accompanied by viol consort or harpsichord, and those later published by Oratio Bassani and Vincenzo Bonizzi included a continuo bass. L’Estro d’Orfeo choose the organ, and Javier Núñez provides a rich, sustained sonority through which Prada roves in songful rumination, nurtured by the organ’s smooth embrace. The closing cadence is magical as Prada strives to explore every tint and timbre of the organ’s reverberating tones. In dalla Casa’s Petite fleur coincte from the same treatise, a theorbo is added to the duo. Here the organ initiates and leads the counterpoint, leaving the viola bastarda free to elaborate more extravagantly, the dizzying diminutions stroked tenderly by the theorbo.

Of the diminutions which explore the emerging musical forms of the early 17th century, Biagio Marini’s Romanesca per violino solo e basso se piace, included in the composer’s Op.3 (1620), demonstrates the way the viola bastarda developed from its prima pratica roots into the highly rhetorical, improvisatory monody of the seconda pratica style. In April 1615, Marini – a violinist, singer and composer – was appointed as a violinist at S. Marco, Venice, and therefore probably worked under Monteverdi, learning from him the idiomatic style of violin writing that we hear in these Romanesca diminutions. Leonor de Lera explores Marini’s seven variations with exemplary taste and masterful execution, accompanied variously by viola da gamba, theorbo and harpsichord, drawing upon Selva de varii passaggi, which was published in the same year, to decorate the repeated sections of each variant. The wizardry of finger and bow ensures that the dance spins with a blithe step and light heart.

Variations on popular tunes are also represented by compositions by Salomone Rossi and Marco Uccellini. Rossi may have been most noted for his contribution to the development of the trio sonata and chamber duet but his Sonata quinta sopra un’Aria francese shows him to have a sure ear for a toe-tapping melody and rhythmic spriteliness, and he sends his two fiddlers on a free, exuberant jaunt. The homophonic duetting at the start of Uccellini’s Aria decima quarta a doi violini sopra ‘La mia pedrina’ is less fanciful but no less tuneful, and the increasingly vigorous imitative sequences, moving through cycles of fifths, reach towards the establishment of tonal structures and harmonic practices which lay on the horizon.

The variations look back as well as ahead, though, and include Giovanni Girolama Kapsberger’s set on the ubiquitous 15th-century folia dance tune, for theorbo, the instrument upon which Kapsberger himself excelled. Martí plays with a musicality – lucidity, vitality and feeling for harmonic nuance –which surely matches that of his illustrious forebear. In Bartolemé de Selma y Salaverde’s Vestiva i colli passeggiato a doi the baroque violin and viola da gamba converse in ever more exuberant fashion, with the accompanying organ also entering and energising the debate. The violin’s imperial closing fanfare seems to be the last word in the argument, but the viola da gamba quietly overturns that assumption!

The remaining works are by members of the L’Estro d’Orfeo ensemble, who follow the instruction and example of their predecessors with meticulous thoughtfulness. Núñez engages with a madrigal by Jacques Arcadelt, O felici occhi miei, in his composition for harpsichord, drawing on the extravagant ‘Neapolitan’ style of composers such as Ascanio Mayone and Giovanni Maria Trabaci. The melodic flights and harmonic excursions are inventive and exuberant, but the high spirits are kept in check by the crystalline tautness of conception and execution. Prada also selects a madrigal on which to draw, but this time it is a contrapuntal one, Io Canterei d’Amor per suonar by Cipriano di Rore – a work for which both dalla Casa and Giovanni Bassano wrote diminutions – and shows that he is equally adept at composing in the alla bastarda style as he is at interpreting it as a performer. Here, Núñez’ gentle harpsichord accompaniment highlights the melodic freedom of the elaborations, remaining restrained until lured to join the celebratory fantasia of the final cadence.

De Lera takes inspiration from Palestrina, and the disc opens with her diminutions on the composer’s motet, Descend in hortum meum, for the full ensemble with organ, conjuring the splendour and majesty of the text and original context. She returns to Palestrina with Pulchra es amica mea di Palestrina but also offers examples of diminutions written on a popular tunes and dances. Diminuzioni sopra ‘Usurpator tiranno’ di Giovanni Felice Sances commences with an astonishing rhetorical cascade for the harpsichord, before the entry of the ground on which de Lera alternates incisiveness and sweetness in ceaseless extemporising and invention, while always allowing her colleagues to enter the fun – Martí’s baroque guitar certainly takes up the opportunity. Bringing to mind the music-making of Christina Pluhar’s L’Arpeggiata, Tarantella del Gargano diminuita, based upon a traditional 17th-century Italian song, ends the disc in buoyant, confident fashion. I challenge any listener to resist the invitation to the dance.
Claire Seymour

Leonor de LERA
Descendi in hortum meum di Palestrina passeggiato [4:02]
Francesco ROGNONI
Vestiva i colli. Modo difficile per suonar alla bastarda
Biagio MARINI (1594-1663)
Romanesca per violino solo e basso se piace
Leonor de LERA
Pulchra es amica mea di Palestrina
Diminuzioni sopra ‘Usurpator tiranno’ di Giovanni Felice Sances
Marco UCCELLINI (c.1603/1610-1680)
Aria decima quarta a doi violini sopra ‘La mia pedrina’ [4:11]
Girolamo dalla CASA (d. c.1601)
Petit Jacquet da sonar con la Viola Bastarda [4:31]
Giovanni Girolamo KAPSBERGER (c.1580-1651)
Folia [7:16]
Aria quinta sopra ‘La Bergamasca’ [4:24]
Rodney PRADA
Io canterei d’amor di Cipriano per suonar alla bastarda [3:51]
Javier NÚÑEZ
O felici occhi miei di Arcadelt [5:05]
Bartolomé de Selma y SALAVERDE
Vestiva i colli passeggiato a doi [3:43]
Salomone ROSSI (1570-c.1630)
Sonata quinta sopra un’Aria francese [2:36]
Girolamo dalla CASA
Petite fleur coincte [3:18]
Leonor de LERA
Tarantella del Gargano diminuita [4:49]

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