Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677)
Vago Desio - Opus 8 (1664), Part 1
L'Astratto, op. 8,4
Non c'è più fede, op. 8,8
E pazzo mio core, op. 8,9
Tu me ne puoi ben dire, op. 8,10
Ferma il piede, op. 8,11
Che si può fare, op. 8,6
Donne belle, op. 8,12
Bernardo Gianoncelli (?-bef. 1650)
Corrente 1 & 2 in C minor
Corrente in F minor
Elissa Edwards (soprano)
Richard Kolb (theorbo, archlute)
rec. 2018, Lake Jackson, USA
Texts and translations included
ACIS APL90277 
Barbara Strozzi is one of the most remarkable composers of the 17th century. That is not because she was a woman: there were more women who were active as composers and even published their compositions. However, almost all of them were residents of a convent and composed sacred music which they wrote first and foremost for liturgical use in their own convent. Barbara Strozzi's oeuvre almost exclusively comprises secular music. She was also active as a singer, although in private circles, not in public concerts and not on the stage, for instance in an opera.
That said, her oeuvre is highly dramatic in character. That is certainly due to the fact that she was educated in composition by Francesco Cavalli, who would become the most famous Venetian opera composer after the death of Monteverdi. Her father, Giulio, had also strong ties with opera: he was a poet who wrote a large number of opera librettos, which were set by the main composers of his time. He was also largely responsible for Barbara's career. He founded the Accademia degli Unisoni, a kind of literary academy, which gave her the chance to perform, certainly mostly her own compositions, and to listen to the deliberations of its members, especially about artistic matters.
Strozzi published her first collection of music in 1644: madrigals for two to five voices and basso continuo. It was followed by seven books of pieces, mostly for solo voice and basso continuo. The first was the Op. 2 which appeared in 1651 and the last the Op. 8 which dates from 1664. Only one of these books comprised sacred works: the Op. 5 of 1655. Most of the texts were written specifically for her; about half of them are anonymous.
Strozzi was very much concerned about the form of her compositions, which were called arie, ariette or cantate. She sometimes took strophic poems, but often treated them with considerable freedom, probably driven by the wish to translate the affetti of the text as accurately and effectively as possible. The disc under review here is devoted to the Op. 8, and includes two cantatas and five arias. In the latter the stanzas are embraced by refrains. The cantatas include some episodes in a free form, what can be called a recitative. However, the two genres are not strictly separated. An example is Tu me ne puoi ben dire, which is called an aria, but includes some recitativic elements.
Strozzi uses various devices to express the emotions in the text and to create dramatic contrasts. One of these is a remarkable range of the solo part, which attests to her own skills as a singer. Others are shifts in meter and tempo, contrasts between measured and unmeasured passages as well as the juxtaposition of episodes in a purely monodic style - à la Caccini - and more lyrical passages, such as we find them in the operas of Cavalli. However, considering the date of publication of the Op. 8 (1664), one could argue, as Richard Kolb does in his liner-notes, that "Strozzi was perhaps conservative in her unabated adherence to Monteverdi's ideals, by comparison with younger contemporaries such as Antonio Cesti and Antonio Sartorio. Strozzi's delight in expressive melodic gestures that heighten important words and images, word-painting melismas, and the sonorous qualities of Italian diction is apparent in almost all of her compositions".
Strozzi's aim at communicating the affetti of a text explains her frequent use of chromaticism, dissonances and modulations. A striking example of modulations is Non c'è più fede, in particular the middle section. She also uses harmony for expressive reasons in E pazzo mio core, which is also quite dramatic. It is an example of a mad song as were also written by English composers in the second half of the 17th century. Che si può fare, one of Strozzi's better-known pieces, includes quite some word painting. The chromatic descending figure that opens the piece is characteristic. The piece ends abruptly, inspired by the closing phrase: "[The] shadow of a blind god stumbles in the end".
Barbara Strozzi is quite popular among singers specialising in early music, and that is understandable, considering the qualities of her oeuvre and its specific features. Over the years I have heard a number of recordings, some of them rather good, but also some that were disappointing, as the performers did not apply the tools that singers of the time had at their disposal. This disc belongs to the former category. In fact, it is one of the best recordings of Strozzi's music that I have heard in a long time. Elissa Edwards is an early music specialist, who has studied gesture of the 17th and 18th centuries. This undoubtedly will have given her a good idea of how vocal music of a dramatic nature, as is Strozzi's oeuvre, had to be performed in such a manner, that the text and the affetti are communicated to an audience. The text is here always in the centre, thanks to an excellent diction and an effective use of dynamics, especially the messa di voce. In addition, her good intonation guarantees that the harmonic means Strozzi uses come off to full effect. Richard Kolb has edited the entire oeuvre of Strozzi, and knows her music inside out, and that explains his sensitive accompaniments. He also plays some nice lute pieces by Bernardo Gianoncelli, which are performed with the rhythmic precision they require.
This disc offers 'part 1' of the Op. 8 by Strozzi. I hope that a sequel will follow soon. And I certainly would like to hear more Barbara Strozzi from these fine artists.
Johan van Veen