December 26, 2011

Turning the Baroque World Upside Down, Inside Out

Christina Pluhar & L’Arpeggiata (Photo by Marco Borggreve)

Such a scenario suggests chaos, the very antithesis to the highly structured form which defines baroque music.  Yet the early music group, L’Arpeggiata, manages to turn the baroque world on its head without disintegrating into a chaotic clamor.  On the contrary.  This Parisian-based group of highly skilled musicians and their director, lutenist and harpist Christina Pluhar, intimately know the music they perform and when they blend their specialty of 17th century early baroque music with characteristic forms of ground bass patterns inherent in ancient folk traditionals (the ciacconia, tarantella, folia, passacaglia, bergamasca, jácaras, fandango, etc.), magic happens.  To understand L’Arpeggiata’s repertoire, a little background on some of these forms is in order:

Lively stuff.  Such material fits L’Arpeggiata’s calling card like a glove, providing them with fertile ground for exploring the close links between baroque music and popular folk music of the early European and Latin worlds.  Retaining the original elements of both kinds of music, L’Arpeggiata magically transports them into the modern world and adds their own jazzy improvisations to the mix.  Their music exudes the song-and-dance excitement of common street folk from centuries past, infusing it with their dazzling instrumental and vocal improvisations above a steady and rhythmic ground “ostinato” bass (translated into English as stubborn or “obstinate”) that is found in the ancient traditional music described above.

An ostinato is a motif or phrase persistently repeated in the same musical voice, and while its roots go back to antiquity, it is still found in all kinds of popular music today  –  think “Jaws,” the theme song for which a two-note ground bass is used, repeated in various tempos to express the different activities of the killer shark.  The repetitive ground bass phrases in Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” or The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” are other examples.  The ostinato bass eventually found its way into the music of every court in Europe as composers from the 16th-18th centuries became increasingly drawn to the musical possibilities of overlaying elaborate improvisations on top of the ostinato, allowing composers and performers alike to demonstrate their creativity, imagination and virtuosity.  Musick’s Monument (Thomas Mace, 1676) described it as, “The Ground is a set Number of Slow Notes, very Grave, and Stately; which (after it is express’d Once, or Twice, very Plainly) then He that hath Good Brains, and a Good Hand, undertakes to Play several Divisions upon it, Time after Time, til he has shew’d his Bravery, both of Invention, and Hand.”

One composer who used the ground ostinato bass in this way was Stefano Landi (1586-1639), and L’Arpeggiata has recorded an outstanding album devoted to his music:

Stefano Landi: Homo fugi velut umbra...

“This is one of the most pleasurable early music releases I’ve heard in an age.” – Andrew McGregor, BBC review 

“Occasionally a recording comes my way by accident that is so good that I want to do what I can to pass the word. Such is the case with Stefano Landi, the soberly titled but dazzling new release by the European ensemble L’Arpeggiata.” – Mary Dalton, Renaissance Magazine

This CD was my introduction to L’Arpeggiata, and what a stunning introduction it proved to be.  The opening track (the only selection not composed by Landi) appropriately sets the stage.  It is an anonymous tarantella vibrant with “folksy” syncopations from lute, theorbo, baroque guitar, viola da gamba, bass viol, psalterion (hammer dulcimer), ancient percussive instruments, and the memorable tenor voice of Marco Beasley, who makes the soul of this ancient music of the streets come alive through his unique phraseology and delivery.  See a video performance of the song here.

The remainder of the album consists of Landi’s own compositions and L’Arpeggiata demonstrates how much his works have in common with the introductory anonymous traditional.  Many selections are from Landi’s book of arias (Libri di Arie).  The Libri di Arie exhibits a different, less public side to Landi, who the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians describes as a “leading Roman composer of his day and one of the most important figures in the early history of opera.” Landi was in the musical employ of  Cardinal Francesco Barberini, a member of the wealthy and influential Barberini family of Rome, and he was highly successful in his commissions there.  His more personal Libri di Arie, however, reveals another side to Landi – that of a harpist, guitarist, organist and singer who often accompanied his own songs on the harp or Spanish guitar; in other words, it gives us a peek into the reverse side of life at court and its commissions.  The text and music of the songs contained in the Libri di Arie are brimming over with elements of traditional music.  Landi paid close attention to lyrics and he composed his music in perfect sync with the words of the street folks’ songs.  This is most evident in track 7, “T’amai gran tempo,” a song about a jilted lover who alternately mourns his loss and rejoices in his new-found freedom.  Landi employs a slow, formal and serious musical style to accompany the singer’s lament, but cleverly changes tempo, rhythm and timing when the singer tells his ex-lover “Now go, since I don’t want you,” “Go ahead and yell, I’ve gone deaf,” and “Go rot, I’m free.”

Elsewhere on the disk, the cornetto player, William Dongois, has some fine moments of interplay with strings and lutes – no easy feat since the cornetto (not to be confused with the modern cornet) is extremely difficult to play.   It is an early woodwind instrument, either curved, straight, or serpentine, with no valves.  Notes are made by altering the shape of the lips around the mouthpiece.  Even 16th century music theorists acknowledged the difficulty in mastering this instrument, as demonstrated by Bolognese theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi’s comments:  “Truly it is a difficult instrument, requiring much effort and long study.  However, a single part on it can give much delight if the player has a certain excellence.”

Stefano Landi: Homo fugit velut umbra is indeed a stunning album which breathes vibrant life into Landi’s music.  It should have a wide appeal not only to early baroque music lovers, but also to those who enjoy traditional world folk music, as should all of L’Arpeggiata’s recordings.

Monteverdi: Teatro d'Amore

L’Arpeggiata’s stellar 2009 release Teatro d’Amore is devoted to the works of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), who was in his day reproached by music theorists for the “excessive modernity” of his harmonic innovations.  L’Arpeggiata brilliantly capitalizes on this side to Monteverdi.  Pluhar writes in the liner notes :

“The modernity that runs like a constant thread through his pieces and makes his music seem timeless even in the twenty-first century is self-evident if one considers, for example, his use of ostinato basses.  Jazz musicians are supposed to have “invented” the walking bass in the 1940s, but already in Monteverdi we find ostinato basses which diverge from the standard ostinatos of the 17th century, that are unique of their kind and sound extremely modern.”

About the second track, she writes:  “The bass line of  “Ohimè ch’io cado,” is a walking bass…Here we have allowed ourselves a little scherzo musicale in order to bring out the cheeky modernity of this bass.”  She is not kidding.  I was a bit shocked when I first heard it, sure that this could not possibly be Monteverdi.  But indeed it is, and it is ingenious what L’Arpeggiata does with it.  Pluhar searches far and wide to recruit just the right artists to create what she calls “a living baroque” for each of their programs, and for Monteverdi’s music she has brought on board another cornetto player, the very talented jazz musician Doron David Sherwin who adds the significant spark to “Ohimè ch’io cado” with his bold improvisational technique.   Hear it for yourself  here.  Amazing!

Immediately following “Ohimè ch’io cado,” we are treated to a sensuous blending of the voices of superstar countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and Spanish soprano Núria Rial in a stunning performance of “Pur ti miro,” the final duet based upon a four-note ground bass from Monteverdi’s opera L’Incoronazione di Poppea, often cited as one of the most sensuous and beautiful love scenes in all of operatic history.

“Amor (Lamento della Ninfa),” (track 5), beautifully sung by Rial with tenors Cyril Auvity and Jan van Elsacker, presents the first instance of a passacaglia bass being used in the form of a lamento.  The next track features Jaroussky in the gorgeous “Si dolce è l’tormento,” an aria with unique harmonic language for the times.  For half the piece, Monteverdi leaves the melody on a single note while the bass descends stepwise, producing harmonies that were forbidden (and unprecedented) at the time.   Monteverdi’s first use of the ostinato bass was in his opera, L’Orfeo (1607), at the precise moment when Orpheus walks out of the Underworld.  Track 9, “Chiome d’oro,” with its lively strings, lutes, cornetto and Rial’s impeccable vocals, uses almost this same bass line.   “Con che soavitá” is noteworthy for its instrumental coloring of the words through the use of continuo instruments.  The final track  is the duet “Zefiro torna.”  It represents the first vocal duet over a ciaccona bass in musical history, and is very “danceable” and full of expression.  As the liner notes say, “it was to be followed by many imitators, but still remains unsurpassed for its expressive accentuation of words.”

Monteverdi never published a collection of instrumental pieces, but L’Arpeggiata has lifted snippets of sinfonias and sections from his various other works and interspersed them throughout the vocal pieces to round out  a superb musical program that begs for repeated and rewarding listens.

Via Crucis

2010’s Via Crucis focuses on Mediterranean passion (of a religious nature) from composers in northern Italy and folk traditionals sung in the streets of southern Italy and the island of Corsica.  The music is presented as a fictional 17th century Italian mystery play based on “The Way of the Cross” divided into three sections:  the vision, the death of Christ, and the resurrection.  Once again Christina Pluhar works her magic by using her knack for pairing just the right artists with the particular musical focus.  In this case, she retains countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, Spanish soprano Núria Rial, and cornetto master Doron David Sherwin, but goes one further by adding the Corsican folk quartet, Barbara Furtuna – a stroke of  programming genius, as their earthy vocals provide a delightful contrast to the classical refinement heard from Jaroussky and Rial.  Jaroussky has two solos – one an anonymous lullaby, and the other a gorgeous aria from the Italian composer Benedetto Ferrari (1603-1681).   Jaroussky and Rial join forces in one duet, “Lumi, potete piangere” by Giovanni Legrenzi (1626-1690), with breathtaking results.  Two Stabat Maters are presented back-to-back: an impressive Corsican traditional performed by Barbara Furtuna, and a beautiful version of Giovanni Felice Sances‘ (1600-1679) performed as a solo by Rial.  Rial has two more solos – a very ethereal interpretation of “Hor ch’è tempo di dormire,” composed by Tarquinio Merula (1594-1665), and Claudio Monteverdi’s “Laudate dominum.”  The Corsican traditional, “Maria (sopra la Carpinese),” absolutely oozes with authentic religious passion from Corsican villages of centuries past.  Sherwin’s cornetto opens the piece with a single soft note, building to a crescendo that leaps from the speakers clear as a bell before the vocals take over.  The song is truly beautiful.  A video performance of it is here.

The instrumentals included on the disk are just as lovely.  They include two selections from the Rosary Sonatas composed by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704), a brief somber piece by Michelangelo Rossi (1601-1656), a passacaglia medley combining works of Maurizio Cazzati (1616-1678) and Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli (1630-1670), and a delightful canario by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652).

For the last track Pluhar has a surprise in store for us, ending the program with the modern composition “’Stu criato” written by Enzo Gragnaniello. Gragnaniello is a pop singer and songwriter from Naples with an interest in exploring the roots of traditional Neopolitan folk music. Pluhar has recruited the award-winning Italian ballet dancer and alto singer Vincenzo Capezzuto to perform “’Stu criato,” and it serves as a tantalizing finish to this over-all excellent CD.  Listen to the performance of it here.

Since their formation in 2000, L’Arpeggiata has rolled out one recording after another, pretty much all of them being award-winners.  The three albums I’ve discussed are the ones I have, but I know I will eventually end up with all of them.  I have already tagged La Tarantella: Antidotum Tarantulae as my next acquisition.  Besides the traditionals, the tracklist includes three works from the German composer Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680), a truly fascinating individual referred to as “the last man who knew everything” by the editor of a book of articles about him.  The Museum of Jurassic Technology in the Palms district of Los Angeles has a permanent exhibit devoted to the life and works of Kircher, and there is an online research project devoted to him maintained by the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, Italy.

My choice of La Tarantella as the next L’Arpeggiata CD for me, however, is likely to change since learning about their new album due out in January 2012:

Los Pajaros Perdidos (Deluxe Edition)Los Pajaros Perdidos: The South American Project looks hard to resist.  It includes an increased number of modern compositions mixed in with the old, including guest instrumentalists Raul Orellana on the charango (a small Andean stringed instrument of the lute family traditionally made with a shell from the back of an armadillo), the Paraguayan harpist Lincoln Almada, and the Argentinian guitarist Quito Gato.  Pluhar retains countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, and expands the number of contributions from ballet dancer-singer Vincenzo Capezzuto.  She brings back Italian folk singer Lucilla Galeazzi (who appeared on La Tarantella), but replaces Rial with another excellent Spanish soprano, Raquel Andueza.  Andueza appeared on L’Arpeggiata’s previous CD, Monteverdi’s Vespro della beata vergine, which I haven’t yet heard, but I loved Andueza’s performance on  José de Nebra: Miserere.   One of the modern selections included on Los Pajaros Perdidos is a solo by Andueza of the bolero “Bèsame Mucho,” which is sure to be among the album’s highlights.  To listen to this spectacular performance, go here.

This new release from L’Arpeggiata promises to be an outstanding addition to their discography.  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see Los Pajaros Perdidos make one of Stephen Nereffid’s lists in the coming months.

L’Arpeggiata and Christina Pluhar appeared as guests on “The Music Show” of ABC Radio National.  The show was videotaped in three parts and is an absolute must-see.  It features a few live performances and includes some very interesting discussion from Pluhar about “these deliciously entertaining songs and dances of 17th century Italy.”

Filed under Classical, Instruments