Notes and Editorial Reviews
One of the best recordings I have heard all year.
As its title indicates this disc is entirely devoted to laments. This was a popular genre in the 17th century. Some laments belong to the most famous pieces, like the
Lamento d'Arianna by Monteverdi - the only surviving fragment from his lost opera. Then there’s the lament of Dido at the end of Purcell's opera
Dido and Aeneas. Various terms were used to describe them:
lamento, pianto or
lacrime ("tears"). This disc could also bear the title "Piangete occhi, piangete" - Weep, eyes, weep! - because that phrase returns in various pieces.
All these compositions were written by composers who worked in Rome, and in particular in the service of members of the Barberini family, one of the most wealthy in Italy. They were a Tuscan dynasty of wool merchants who also played a role in the church. When Maffeo Barberini was elected pope in 1623 - under the name of Urban VIII - he made two of his nephews cardinal, whereas a third became Prince of Palestrina and commander of the Papal army. Together they acted as patrons of the arts in Rome, surrounding themselves with some of the best poets, artists and musicians. Among the most celebated musician-composers in their service were Girolamo Frescobaldi, the chitarrone virtuoso Johann Hieronymus Kapsberger and Stefano Landi, castrato and player of the harp and the guitar. The main composers on this disc, Luigi Rossi and Marco Marazzoli, were also singers and harpists.
Marazzoli was at the service of Cardinal Antonio Barberini. The largest part of his oeuvre - oratorios, operas and cantatas - was written for the Barberinis. The same Cardinal was also the patron of Luigi Rossi, one of Rome's main composers. He has become especially famous for his opera
Orfeo which was written for performance at the French court. This was at the request of Cardinal Jules Mazarin, who was of Italian birth and belonged to the Barberini network. The disc opens with a
Passacaglia, an independent instrumental piece which may have been written while Rossi was in France.
The laments were not just written for musical entertainment. They also had a spiritual meaning, even those with secular content. Despite their love of splendour and their wish to display affluence, the Barberinis were also staunch supporters of the Counter-Reformation. And music was an important instrument by which to spread the ideals of this movement. The fact that worldly subjects were part of it only confirms that in this time there was no strict division between sacred and secular. A good example is the second item, Marazzoli's
Lamento d'Elena invecchiata, the lament of the aged Helen, meaning Helen of Troy. It begins with a passage for a
testo, a narrator. Oratorios, for instance those of Giacomo Carissimi (another Roman composer) often also had a role for a
testo, telling parts of the story and introducing the characters - very much like the Evangelist in Bach's Passions. This lament is the musical counterpart of paintings with a
vanitas subject which were also used for the promotion of ethical values. In this case the moral lesson is the vanity of beauty. The narrator concludes: "And so she [Helen] showed us through the fragile mirror, how fragile is a beautiful face".
Another secular piece is the
Lamento d'Artemisia, also by Marazzoli. The title figure was Artemisia II, who after the death of her husband Mausolus ruled Caria from 353 to 351 B.C. She laments the death of Mausolus, and several historical figures are mentioned. This is, according to the liner-notes, one of the reasons this repertoire is not often performed. There are many references to figures and situations which are not familiar to modern audiences. That was different at the time this music was written, as the audiences consisted of aristocrats and clergymen who were very well educated.
The longest piece is of a sacred nature. Luigi Rossi's
Pianto della Maddalena is about Mary Magdalene who threw herself at the feet of the cross and "in sobs and sighs and with these bitter notes, gave voice to her sufferings". Here we not only find sadness and grief, but also passages of utter despair and explosions of anger against heaven and hell. That lends it a great amount of realism from a psychological point of view. It also makes it a real
tour de force for any interpreter. The
Pianto della Maddalena is a masterpiece, and it gets a highly impressive and often moving performance by Nadine Balbeisi, who brings out every nuance of the text.
No less impressive is Theodora Baka in the lament of Artemisia and in the role of Helen of Troy in Marazzoli's lament. Her voice isn't that much different from Ms Balbeisi's, but has some darker streaks which are effectively used. The two singers are an excellent match in the duet in the
Lamento d'Elena invecchiata and in
Dovremo piangere la passione di Nostro Signore - Let us weep for the passion of Our Lord. It was composed by Domenico Mazzocchi, another who enjoyed the protection of the Barberini family. The piece consists of six stanzas, the first and last for two voices. The programme ends with the closing episode from Luigi Rossi's
Oratorio per la Settimana Santa, an oratorio for Holy Week. This is a lament by Mary which ends with the words: "Eyes, weep, yeah weep for evermore!". Then follows a "madrigale ultimo" for the two voices which takes up the last line of Mary: "Weep, eyes, weep! Sorrows, torments, increase".
An important aspect of this disc is the use of the various instruments. It is the first CD from Atalante, which Erin Headley founded a couple of years ago with the explicit aim of performing and recording music written in Rome in the 17th century. The name is derived from Atalante Migliorotti, friend and pupil of Leonardo da Vinci. More importantly, he was the inventor of the lirone. Ms Headley is a latter-day pioneer of this instrument and was the first to commission the building of a facsimile of the instrument which played such an important role in Italian music of the 17th century. With its dark sound it was especially suited to laments, and this disc is all the proof that could be needed. Also interesting is the frequent use of a harp in the basso continuo. This is particularly appropriate as both Rossi and Marazzoli played this instrument. Lastly, in several items we hear a consort of viols. That is not something one associates with Italian music of the 17th century, but such an ensemble was more widely used than is often thought. Whether consort players still transcribed vocal pieces in the 17th century as they did in the 16th I am not sure. Two examples of such transcriptions are included here:
Spargete sospiri and
Peccantem me quotidie, both by Luigi Rossi.
This is one of the best recordings I have heard all year. The repertoire is exciting, and so are the performances. It is thanks to grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Council of Great Britain that this programme could be recorded. There is more to come. I can hardly wait.
-- Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International