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Barbara STROZZI (1619-1677)
Sacri Musicali Affetti – Opera Quinta, Venice 1655
Aurata Fonte
rec. April 2019, Church of San Girolamo, Bagnacavollo, Italy
TACTUS TC611990 [48.33+ 52.49]

What might it have been like for a female musician in the first decades of the seventeenth century, even more, a female composer? Barbara was adopted by Giulio Strozzi at a young age and grew up in a privileged household. During her lifetime she had many admirers and was much promoted and encouraged by Giulio; nonetheless, life was tough. Female music-making was mostly linked with sexual availability; indeed, it seems likely that, when young, she was raped; certainly the portrait of her shows her indelicately dressed exposing much of her breasts.
It so happened that on August 6th 2019, I was in the suffocating heat of Venice and it was the four hundredth anniversary of Barbara’s birth. I took a vaporetto to the church in which she was baptised, Santa Sofia, Cannaregio. The area is now rather run down, but the church is quite pleasing - although now mostly early nineteenth century, showing little evidence of the period when Barbara lived there. That busy area was her family environment containing houses which at that time must have been quite fashionable.
Her earlier publications had been secular; for example, her ‘Cantate e arietta opera seconda’ of 1651, a publication exhibiting passion and virtuosity. This, her next book has many of the same qualities; just listen, for example, to Parasti in dulcedine, demonstrating that she was best known as the ‘Virtuosissima Cantatrice’, an astonishingly fine singer and probably an actress. For this publication, however, we are presented with fourteen sacred works for a solo female voice and continuo. In this way, she fell in line with her contemporary Francesca Caccini but the passion and fervour of the secular works is also found in these sacred settings. 
Sadly, as normal with Tactus, no texts are provided and one can’t be truly certain of the source of the words, but Nicola Badolato gives the background to some of the motets in the booklet essay. Also illustrated are the two keyboards, the harpsichord, which is a copy after Giovanni Battista Giusti, (1681) by Roberto Mattiazzo and the organ made as recently as 2005. 
Regarding these performances, the three female singers are certainly on top of all of the challenges Strozzi demands of them, including often lengthy melismas and ornate embellishments, as in Nascente Maria; in addition, the continuo support is exemplary and imaginative. Interestingly, she often frees the bass line so that it has a life of its own and does not fully support the vocal line, as was usually the case. A good example of the typically sectionalised form of these motets can be heard in the motet O Maria. In the first section, the bass roams around in scalic passages, then in the ensuing section, now in compound time, it imitates the voice. The opening text and music return with its impassioned “O Maria! Quam pulcra est”. A recitativic section follows but becomes more melismatic with sequential passages. The gentle compound time section returns with, again, its independent bass line. To end, Strozzi offers the ‘O Maria’ with a final Alleluia. It’s pleasing that, for example, in the motet Erumpebat, variety is added by using the harpsichord for the faster passages and the organ for the recitativic ones. Sometimes, they double each other, as in the joyous motet Nascente Maria.
In the communion motet, Parasti in dulcedine, the solo line requires a singer of great agility and technical skill when all of the vocal effects of the period come into play. On the whole, Strozzi favours texts to the Virgin Mary, as in the joyous Gaude Maria with its virtuosic final Alleluia. This 1655 collection is dedicated to Anna de’ Medici who may well have had a deep affection for female saints. Certainly, in that context, the opening motet Mater Anna (with its surprising chromaticisms) should come as no surprise.
Strozzi’s motets are full of heightened emotion and drama, such as one might find in the operatic field in which she was much involved, and all are typical of the so-called ‘Seconda pratica’. Some of them have the length and feeling of a small cantata. Perhaps the most beautiful and remarkable is the setting of the Salve Regina, given a heavenly performance here by Miho Kamiya.
The recording is well spaced and made in an ideal acoustic of a quiet convent church.
Gary Higginson
Mater Anna [9.30]
In medio maris [6.24]
Gaude Virgo [4.58]
Salve, sancta caro [7.20]
Hodie oritur [7.27]
Erumpebat [6.00]
O Maria [6.25]
Parasti in dulcedine [6.33]
Erat Petrus [7.18]
Surgite, surgite [5.05]
Salve Regina [9.44]
Nascente Maria [8.09]
Oleum effusum [9.10]
Jubilemus [6.20]
Miho Kamiya and Anna Simboli (sopranos) Andrea Arrivibene (alto), Perikli Pite (viola da gamba) Valeria Montanari, (clavicembalo), Giuseppe Monari (organ)

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