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Arte Maestria RES10282
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Con arte e maestria - Virtuoso violin ornamentation from the dawn of the Italian Baroque
Monteverdi String Band In Focus
rec. Feb 2021 in St John's Church, Loughton, UK

In 1602 Giulio Caccini published a book of songs under the pretentious title of Le Nuove Musiche. In his preface, he specifically warns against excessive ornamentation, especially the addition of diminutions, in Italian called passaggi. Roberto Balconi, in the liner-notes to his recording of this book of songs (review) states: "The composer sees the indiscriminate use of 'passaggi' (ornamental passagework) in line with the tastes of the time as unsuitable for his musical aesthetics, which are focused not on virtuosity but on expression." Such diminutions "tend to be used 'to provide a certain titillation to the ears of those who do not really understand what singing expressively means' (...)".

The fact that he found it necessary to emphasize the need of restraint in the department of ornamentation attests to the popularity and wide dissemination of the playing of diminutions. This rooted in the practice of improvisation, for instance in the form of intabulations of vocal music. From intabulation - the transcription of a polyphonic piece for a keyboard or plucked instrument - to diminution is a small step. One may assume that many players did more than just reproduce the notes of a piece, and added some material of their own. This may have led to the more formalised diminution practice. Its popularity is documented by some treatises, such as those by Girolamo Dalla Casa (1584) and Riccardo Rognoni (1592). They not only offer instructions on how to add diminutions, but also fully worked-out examples of such pieces. These were not intended to be reproduced literally by performers but were rather part of a common process, known under the Latin terms of imitatio and aemulatio: "the principle of an initially competitive imitation and finally the attempt to develop further and even surpass the imitation", as one commentator summarized.

The written-out diminutions by composers of the time are quite popular among present-day performers, and are played and have been recorded many times. However, as we have seen they are intended to be used as models to imitate and emulate. It is only recently that performers have started to use the treatises for what they are. Oliver Webber, in the liner-notes to the recording under review here, writes: "[We] also offer something completely new: in addition to published ornamented works by the Rognonis, Girolamo Dalla Casa, Giovanni Battista Bovicelli, and the mysterious Carlo G., we present three madrigals, a chanson, a motet and a canzona, each newly ornamented in the style of one of these great masters". In fact, this disc is part of the development I just mentioned, and in an email, Mr Webber has been so kind to clarify this: what he means is that his diminutions are new, and that is correct, of course. In this context, I would like to mention two recent recordings in which the performers play their own diminutions: one by L'Estro d'Orfeo, directed by Leonor de Lera (review), the other by I Cavalieri del Cornetto (review). These two productions as well as the present one are signs of a fairly recent development which is of great importance and which can result in exciting 'new' early music. The present disc is a perfect example.

Some pieces were very popular among the composers of diminutions. Among them are madrigals by Palestrina (Vestiva i colli, Io son ferito) and Rore (Anchor che col partire) and Lassus's chanson Susanne ung jour. That means that these pieces also figure prominently in recordings of diminution repertoire. The nice thing about 'new' diminutions is that players can take different pieces. That is the case here, as the track-list shows. Oliver Webber selected, among others, another madrigal by Palestrina, Deh hor foss'io col vago della luna, and also another by Rore, Signor mio caro. Not only studying the treatises and the diminutions included in them, but in particular a player's own creations in this field help to internalize the features of this practice. And that shows here, as in my ears these diminutions are completely natural and entirely in the style of the period. These pieces are the main asset of this recording, even though the compositions of the time are also played very well.

In addition to diminutions we hear several independent pieces, such as sonatas and toccatas. Their inclusion adds some diversity to the programme, but also makes sense, as here we hear written-out embellishments which show strong similarity to those which are so characteristic of the diminutions. Oliver Webber has contributed to this part of the programme as well, as he plays a Ricercata in the style of the one by Giovanni Bassano, which opens the programme. In other pieces he adds his own embellishments.

For a stylistically convincing performance of this kind of repertoire, the use of the appropriate instruments is of great importance. Playing this music on instruments of a later period - which unfortunately happens once in a while - has a pretty disastrous effect. The performers here have done everything possible to use the 'correct' instruments. Oliver Webber plays a violin which is a modern copy of an instrument of 1595, with gut strings in equal tension, and the bow is a copy of a late 16th-century original. The harpsichord is an unusually early instrument, a copy by Colin Booth of an original of 1533. It is single-strung, which has a marked effect on its sound, in comparison with the Italian harpsichords of later times that are often used. Its sound is quite similar to that of a harp, and it is easy to understand that in the 16th century these two were largely interchangeable.

The organ is a bit of a problem, as in the UK there seems to be no organ in the Italian tradition. Therefore Steven Devine makes use of the Hauptwerk virtual pipe organ software. We have here "an electronic sampling of an original Venetian organ". I have no knowledge about the details of this system, and therefore I can't be too specific about its pros and cons. I am a little in two minds about it: on the one hand a performance on a different organ would be no option, on the other hand I am of the opinion that performers should stay as closely to what is possible in a live concert. From that perspective I am not a great supporter of this 'solution', even though it sounds rather well. In the Netherlands an ensemble has commissioned the building of a 'Monteverdi organ', and that has been used to good effect in concerts and recordings. Would that not be a good idea for some ensemble in the UK as well? Such an instrument could be placed in a venue which is suitable for recordings such as this one.

Lastly, the pitch is according to the practice in northern Italy around 1600: a'=466 Hz. The keyboard temperament is 1/4 comma meantone.

I have listened to this disc with great interest and have very much enjoyed it, thanks to both the exciting repertoire and the excellent playing. This is one of several attempts to do what the authors of treatises expected the reader to do: put into practice what they preached. This is an enticing prospect, and I share Webber's hope expressed in his excellent liner-notes that we are going to hear more of this in the future.

On a technical note: the list of sources is not entirely correct. The source for track 6 refers to track 7 instead. The source for track 7 belongs to track 8; this track is based on two sources: one for the original, the other for the diminutions (thanks to Oliver Webber for the corrections).

Johan van Veen

Giovanni BASSANI (c1561-1617)
Ricercata prima [2:29]
Cipriano DE RORE (c1515-1565) / Riccardo ROGNONI (c1550-c1620)
Anchor che col partire [3:35]
Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (c1525-1594) / Oliver WEBBER (*1969)
Deh hor foss'io con vago della luna [4:07]
Ascanio MAYONE (c1565-1627)
Canzon francese prima [2:39]
Biagio MARINI (1594-1663)
Sinfonia La Gardana [2:06]
Ricercata [1:59]
Thomas CRECQUILLON (c1505-c1557) / Oliver WEBBER
Par trop souffrir de fortune ennemie [4:29]
Orlandus LASSUS (c1532-1594) / Girolamo DALLA CASA (?-c1601)
Susanne ung jour [4:36]
Toccata [2:34]
Sinfonia L'Orlandina [2:09]
Giovanni GABRIELI (c1555-1612)
Toccata del secondo tuono [2:16]
Tomás Luis DE VICTORIA (c1548-1611) / Giovanni Battista BOVICELLI (fl late 16th C)
Dilectus tuus candidus [6:40]
Cipriano DE RORE / Oliver WEBBER
Signor mio caro [3:50]
Ciaccona (after Claudio Monteverdi et al) [4:23]
Michelangelo ROSSI (c1601-1656)
Toccata nona [3:48]
Dario CASTELLO (1602-1631)
Sonata prima [4:05]
Carlo G (fl c1600-1620)
Convertisti planctum [2:41]
Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA / Oliver WEBBER
Vulnerasti cor meum [2:57]
Antonio MORTARO (fl 1587-1610) / Oliver WEBBER
Canzona La Malvezza [4:27]
Aurelio VIRGILIANO (fl c1600)
[Ricercata] on Vestiva i colli [1:25]
Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA / Oliver WEBBER
Cosě le chiome mie [3:44]
Andrea GABRIELI (c1532-1585)
Intonazione quarto toni [1:24]
Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA / Francesco ROGNONI (?-c1626)
Io son ferito [6:08]

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