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Earthly Angels - Music from 17th Century Nun Convents
Maria Xaveria PERUCONA (c1652-c1709)
Ad gaudia, ad iubila [6:16]
Isabella LEONARDA (1620-1704)
Volo Jesum [9:39]
Claudia RUSCA (1593-1676)
Canzon II [2:30]
Rosa Giacinta BADALLA (c1660-c1710)
Non plangete [7:28]
Sonata a 4 in d minor, op. 16,12 [10:01]
Rosa Giacinta BADALLA
Pane angelico [5:44]
Benedetto RE (fl 1606-1626)
Canzona à 4 [5:07]
Chiara Margarita COZZOLANI (1602-c1677)
O quam bonus es [10:04]
Earthly Angels/Kajsa Dahlbäck
Rec. 2017, Sipoo Church, Finland
Texts and translations included
ALBA ABCD426 [56:49]

Women should be silent in church - that was the general rule in the Roman Catholic Church of the 16th and 17th centuries. Liturgical music was therefore performed by male voices, the soprano and alto parts by boys or - especially in Italy - falsetti and increasingly castrati. That doesn't mean that women could not sing sacred music: in various countries women's convents were centres of music. In Italy many families could pay the dowry for only one of their daughters. The others were sent to a convent. One can only speculate about what they thought about that. Undoubtedly, for some it was a vocation, but others may have willy-nilly reconciled themselves to their fate. The popular song known in Italy as La Monica, often used by composers for variations, is about a girl who was to become a nun, but did not like that idea. She certainly was not the only one.

Whether they liked it or not, fact is that the convent offered opportunities women may not have enjoyed outside the convent, such as a thorough musical education, and musical practice on an almost daily basis. The performance of music was bound by strict rules, but the nuns often found a way to by-pass them or openly break them. There is documentary evidence of a lively musical practice in various convents. Nuns not only sung but also played instruments - practically every instrument in vogue at the time, including such as the cornett and the sackbut.

The nuns not only played and sang music, some of them even composed. Over the years several ensembles, such as the Cappella Artemisia (directed by Candace Smith), have paid special attention to female composers of the 17th century from Italian convents. Unfortunately, their music is still seldom included in anthologies of 17th-century sacred music. There is still much work to do in order to treat their compositions on the same footing as that of their male contemporaries.

The present disc includes pieces by five different female composers (Benedetto Re is the only man in the company). It is interesting to note that all the pieces in the programme were taken from collections which were printed during the composers' lifetime. That shows that they were taken seriously. Moreover, it is an indication that their music was also meant for performance outside the convents. This explains why some music by these women were scored for conventional forces, including tenors and basses. It is known that some women were able to sing pretty low, but in many cases the low parts may have been transposed an octave upwards or been played at instruments, such as the sackbut. The music performed here does not need any transposition, as these motets are scored for soprano and basso continuo, in some cases with two violins. The programme closes with a piece for two sopranos.

Obviously, composing nuns regularly set the common liturgical and biblical texts, such as the Magnificat, the Salve Regina, and psalms. The present disc focuses on settings of free poetic texts. The programme starts with a piece for Christmas. Ad gaudia, ad iubila by Maria Xaveria Perucona opens with the words: "Rejoice and make merry, O shepherds (...), hurry with joy, ye people (...)". There is some nice text illustration in the third section through a contrast in tempo. "Why do you tarry" is sung slowly, and then the tempo is speeded up in the next line: "Hurry to the newborn boy". The last section is a lullaby, and that is eloquently depicted in Perucona's music. The Blessed Sacrament was a favourite subject of sacred music in the 17th century; it is one of the most frequent themes of Spanish villancicos. They often have a kind of exaltation, which reflects its importance in the Catholic Church. That is also the case in Pane angelico by Rosa Giacinta Badalla: "With angelic and divine bread this sacred meal sates our hunger and with celestial nectar restores the faithful soul". Such pieces often have a strongly personal and even mystical character.

The latter also manifests itself in pieces about Jesus. The programme includes two striking examples. Volo Jesum by Isabella Leonarda expresses a very emotional longing for Jesus: "I sigh for him who calls upon an upright spirit within me". The duet which closes the programme goes even further. In O quam bonus es, the love for Jesus is connected to love for his mother Mary, and this is expressed in pretty graphic physical terms: "His blood saves me; her milk purifies me; his blood revives me; her milk restores me (...). O wounds, O breasts, O blood, O milk, golden wounds, sweet breasts". The veneration of the Virgin Mary goes hand in hand here with an exalted Jesulatry. The musical language of the time was tailor-made for this kind of texts. The messa di voce was a common tool to express strong emotions, and is required here on the frequently included exclamations: "O quam bonus es, O quam suavis, O quam jucundus, mi Jesu" (O how good you are, O how soft, O how joyful, my Jesus). Such exclamations almost tumble over each other here. If we are talking about religious fervour - this is it.

Music as we get here can only make an impression if the interpretative tools of the time are observed. If these motets are sung with only a minimum of dynamic contrast, they fall flat on their face. Fortunately, Kajsa Dahlbäck understands this, and she does not hold back in exploring the emotional features of these pieces. She is not afraid to go to the limits of her vocal capabilities to communicate what these motets are about. The two motets by Badalla are a special challenge, as they are by far the most virtuosic of all the pieces included here, especially with regard to tessitura. Dahlbäck's use of vibrato is differentiated; in my view she should have reduced it a bit more, but overall it has hardly compromised my great appreciation of her performances. In Cozzolani's motet Anna Villberg is a perfect match, and together they make sure that it is one of the highlights of this disc.

There is some excellent support from the instrumentalists in the basso continuo. The instrumental pieces also receive fine performances.

Of all the composers represented here, Cozzolani and Leonarda are rather well-known. Several discs have been devoted entirely to their oeuvre. The others are largely unknown quantities, and one has to hope that they will receive more attention in the time to come. This disc is important from the angle of repertoire, as it sheds light on a little-known aspect of Italian 17th-century music, and both repertoire and performances make one long for more.

Johan van Veen



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