Under the title Reliquie di Roma
Erin Headley, with her ensemble Atalante, explores the rich musical heritage of Rome which came into existence in the course of the 17th century. At the time it was a centre of arts and science; not least thanks to the actitivities of some rich patrons. The first among them was Pope Urban VIII, born as Maffeo Barberini. Two other important patrons of the arts were his nephews Francesco and Antonio, both cardinals.
Their palaces were the meeting places of so-called 'academies' whose members included poets, musicians and scientists. The composers represented in the programme of the present disc all had connections to the various members of the Barberini family. Luigi Rossi was in the service of Antonio; the largest part of his oeuvre comprises canzonettas and cantatas, mostly for solo voice with basso continuo. Another composer who served Antonio was Marco Marazzoli; he composed a considerable number of oratorios and a huge amount of secular cantatas. Domenico Mazzocchi was also known for his oratorios, and his oeuvre includes several collections of madrigals and sacred concertos. He was in the service of Pope Urban.
Giacomo Carissimi had no formal ties with the Barberini family. From 1629 until his death he was maestro di cappella
of the Collegio Germanico. In this capacity he composed motets and oratorios; the latter were especially famous and had a lasting influence on the development of this genre. However, from 1656 he was also maestro di cappella del concerto di camera
of the Swedish Queen Christina, who had abdicated after her conversion to Catholicism and had settled in Rome. Carissimi wrote his secular cantatas for performances at her palace.
Alessandro Stradella is of a later generation. For a number of years he worked in Rome where he composed oratorios and cantatas. The programme ends with a sinfonia from his serenata Il Damone
which is based on a text of Queen Christina set to verse by a poet.
Many pieces on this disc are unusual in various ways. That goes especially for two compositions by Domenico Mazzocchi. The epilogue from Virgil's Nisus et Euryalus
is secular in content, and in Latin. Latin texts were usually sacred, whereas secular pieces were mostly in the vernacular. It is even more unusual because of the composer's theories on harmony. In the 1630s and 1640s Francesco Barberini's academy hosted lectures by the theorist Giovanni Battista Doni who demonstrated some instruments of his own construction which were able to play music in the Greek genera
(diatonic, harmonic and enharmonic). In the collection from which this particular piece and also Lagrime amare
are taken, Mazzocchi includes music symbols for the enharmonic diesis and for the use of a messa di voce
by increasing volume and pitch at the same time while proceeding to the next note. The effect is quite astonishing as one has the feeling that the singer is regularly out of tune and also slides from one note to another - a kind of glissando. These experiments with harmony were motivated not only by scientific interests but also - probably even in the first place - applied for the sake of expression.
The other notable feature of the repertoire on this disc is the content. Various pieces reflect the interest in foreign civilizations and in antiquity - as did the experiments with harmony. Mazzocchi's piece mentioned above is an example of the former, and so is Stradella's I'incendio di Roma
, an emperor Nero monologue about the destruction of Rome. It is a typical monody in free rhythm, in which the first three sections are followed by a more lyrical episode: "May Claudius laugh and Rome burn". The fourth is followed by a partly different text: "May Claudius laugh and the world perish". The piece has something approaching a moral conclusion.
The interest in eastern civilization comes to the fore in the Lamento di Zaida
by Luigi Rossi in which a Muslim girl curses the Christians and even Mohammed as her beloved Mustafà is taken from her. Armida is a well-known character from Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata
about the Saracen sorceress who falls in love with Rinaldo, a Christian soldier who takes part in the First Crusade. In this lament she complains about Rinaldo leaving her, first expressing her anger in the monodic part and ending with her wish that whirlwinds and storms may perish "this wicked and perfidious man". Then, in the closing aria, she wishes him well as he is still her beloved.
Erin Headley is a specialist on the lirone, a string instrument which was constructed to play in chords. It was especially used in operas and oratorios and more generally in music of a sad character, such as the lament. This explains why music of this kind is prominent in the programmes and the recordings of this ensemble. The anonymous A piè del sanguinoso tronco
is also a lament, in which the words are put into the mouth of Mary, weeping at the cross of her son. The lyrics are from the pen of Cardinal Antonio Barberini.
This is the third disc in a project that explores repertoire written in Rome in the 17th century. I reviewed the first two discs, and I was impressed by the choice of repertoire and the performances (review
). It is no different this time: this disc is another gem. The music can't fail to impress. The composers knew how to set a text and to express its emotions in a most evocative way, using the various tools they had at their disposal to maximum effect. For any performance it is absolutely necessary to master the art of recitar cantando
, speechlike singing, because in these monodic pieces the rhythm of the music is subservient to that of the text. Only here and there do we find more lyrical episodes, pointing in the direction of the aria which would become more important towards the end of the 17th century. The singers of Atalanta fully live up to the requirements. Christian Immler gives a powerful account of the monologue of Nero (Stradella), Nadine Balbeisi convincingly personifies Zaida (Rossi), and Theodora Baka is excellent as Armida. Katherine Watson delivers an incisive performance of Lagrime amare
, also about Jesus' passion, whereas Samuel Boden gives a sensitive interpretation of A piè del sanguinoso tronco
. More important than the singers' technical skills is the ability to communicate the emotional content, and that is exactly this disc's main asset.
The booklet announces the fourth disc in this series which will be called Lamento di David
. I am very much looking forward to it.
Johan van Veen