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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

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Volume 22 (2016) No. 1

Published 2017

Oddities & Trifles: The Very Peculiar Instrumental Music of Giovanni Valentini. ACRONYM. Olde Focus Records, 2015. [FCR904]. Giovanni Valentini: Secondo libro de madrigali. Les Canards Chantants and ACRONYM. Olde Focus Records, 2016. [FCR908]. Johann Rosenmüller in Exile. ACRONYM and Jesse Blumberg, baritone. Olde Focus Recordings, 2017. [FCR909]. Wunderkammer. ACRONYM. Olde Focus Records, 2016. [FCR906].

Reviewed by Rebecca Cypess*

1. Four recordings of new old music

2. Instrumental music of Giovanni Valentini

3. Vocal music of Valenti

4. Motets and sonatas by Rosenmüller

5. Sonatas from the Wunderkammer

References

1. Four recordings of new old music

1.1 Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since Richard Taruskin famously scolded the practitioners of the historically-informed performance movement for, among other things, “self-conscious downbeat bashing” and the overuse of “distracting messa di voce.” The hope that Taruskin saw for the future of the HIP movement lay in the development of its own “viable oral tradition,” with players “listening to and competing with one another, starting younger and with more experienced teachers, thinking of themselves increasingly as normal rather than as deviant or alienated members of musical society.”[1] Taruskin’s words were controversial when he wrote them, and they continue to inspire impassioned reactions from historians and practitioners who identify with the HIP movement today.

1.2 In at least one respect, Taruskin’s assessment is certainly incorrect: while it is true that period instrumentalists are listening to one another, starting younger, and working with teachers who can share their experience with the technical and expressive capacities of early instruments, the idea that HIP practitioners would become “normal”—would simply fold themselves into the musical mainstream—has proven quite false. If anything, the “mainstream” has expanded to include, with ever more urgency, period instruments and period performing practices. The most exciting period-instrument groups today are those that double down on the experimental nature of the movement: some provide astonishingly fresh interpretations of well-known works, but even they throw those works into relief through equally committed and engaging readings of little-known repertoire; they continue, furthermore, to explore playing techniques, improvisational styles, and instrumentations that defy the boundaries of mainstream musical culture. One factor that Taruskin surely could not have anticipated was the move away from giant corporate record labels to smaller independent ones. That move—along with the advent of crowd-funding and the rise of entrepreneurial scholar-musicians—has democratized the worlds of performance and recording, enabling highly skilled, imaginative artists to make a valuable contribution to, among many other things, enhancing our still limited understanding of Western musical cultures of the seventeenth century.

1.3 It is within this context that these four marvelous recordings by the ensemble ACRONYM, two of which involve collaborations with singers, should be understood. All four explore little-known (or totally unknown) works that enrich our idea of the sounds of the period. Many of the composers were itinerant, and their music reflects a fusion of the Italianate stile moderno with traditions of vocal and instrumental music from north of the Alps. To say that the performances are technically impeccable would be merely to scratch the surface; they are, on a deeper level, committed, emotional, intelligent, and sometimes even profound interpretations that must be taken seriously as contributions to both historical knowledge and contemporary artistry.

2. Instrumental music of Giovanni Valentini

2.1 Two of the recordings—one instrumental and one vocal—are devoted to the music of Giovanni Valentini, one of the many prominent musicians of the early seventeenth century who were trained in Italy yet found employment in German-speaking courts. The title page of his 1609 collection of canzonas indicates that Valentini was at that point employed as organist to the royal court of Poland. Of this publication, only the tenor partbook survives, and, remarkably, the musicians of ACRONYM have reconstructed four of the canzonas, using both this partbook and a manuscript intabulation now held in the convent of the Minoriten in Vienna. These reconstructions are presented on Oddities and Trifles; the remainder of the recording presents music that was never published during Valentini’s lifetime and is little known today. The CD booklet explains that with only one exception—the “Enharmonic Sonata”—“all of the compositions found on this disc are, to the best of our knowledge, premiere recordings” (p. 8).

2.2 A 1685 publication by Antimo Liberati indicates that Valentini was a student of Giovanni Gabrieli,[2] and indeed, the influence of the Gabrielian canzona style is manifest in these works. The pieces display a sectional organization, with some scored for a full consort encompassing the range from bass to soprano, while others employ the polarized soprano-bass texture characteristic of much of the stile moderno repertoire. In the works with a thicker instrumental texture, the composer contrasts sections that exploit the sound of a large ensemble with others that utilize a smaller subgroup, thus creating a kaleidoscopic impression. The sonata a4 in d (track 5) captures this contrast ideally, and the performers embrace every turn and gesture to convey the affect to the fullest. Valentini’s harmonic and melodic language departs from the precedent of Gabrieli; steeped in the modal tradition, Valentini’s works yield surprising, sometimes quirky results that maintain a high degree of interest and excitement.

2.3 Beyond the four works from Valentini’s 1609 canzona collection, this recording presents pieces preserved only in manuscript, some of which bear only tentative attributions. The aria a2 in g (track 2), survives in the famous Rost Codex, and it is in that source that the piece is attributed to Valentini. It certainly dates to a later period than the 1609 canzonas; in its style and virtuosity it is reminiscent of the variation sonatas of the 1630s and ’40s by composers such as Tarquinio Merula and Marco Uccellini. Track 9 presents a solo violin sonata taken from the Partiturbuch Ludwig, housed in Wolfenbüttel. The piece is presented anonymously there, but the musicians of ACRONYM have nonetheless included it here, though they confess that it is a “less likely attribution.” Nevertheless, Beth Wenstrom’s magnificent performance of this extended work deserves special mention. She handles the highly unusual melodic material—surprisingly angular and chromatic, and avant-garde by any standards—convincingly and easily. On this piece and throughout the album, the continuo section is sensitive, creative, and responsive.

3. Vocal music of Valentini

3.1 Valentini’s Secondo libro de madrigali was printed in Venice in 1616, after he had joined the court at Graz of Archduke Ferdinand of Inner Austria.[3] Combining instruments other than basso continuo with voices for the first time in a madrigal book, Valentini’s volume must have been at least partly responsible for igniting the interest in the concertato madrigal of the seventeenth century—an interest that would generate monumental contributions in Venice by Monteverdi, who, in 1619, entitled his seventh book of madrigals Concerto, as well as further large-scale concerted pieces by composers at German-speaking courts in the 1620s, ’30s, and ’40s (including Biagio Marini among many others). Collections such as these demonstrate the continued relevance of the madrigal as a vehicle for poetic expression and multifaceted psychological exploration.

3.2 ACRONYM, together with the Philadelphia-based group Les Canards Chantants, presents Valentini’s Secondo libro with the same dramatic flair and sensitivity with which ACRONYM alone approaches the composer’s instrumental music. As in his instrumental works for multiple voices, Valentini varies the disposition of parts—sometimes using a solo voice with continuo, sometimes a small group, and sometimes the full ensemble—to create an ever-changing effect that responds with immediacy to the needs of the textual and musical context. The poetry, by writers such as Giambattista Marino, Gabriello Chiabrera, and Giacomo Sannazzaro, is representative of the sensual seventeenth-century style. As in most madrigal books of this era, the number of voices and instruments increases with each subsequent piece; the opening work, “O come bello appare,” is set for four voices and basso continuo, while the last, “Guerra, guerra tu brami,” includes six voices, five string parts (the uppermost may be played on cornetto), and basso continuo. This latter piece is remarkable for its use of gestures that Claudio Monteverdi would later call the stile concitato; the musical style changes to a more peaceful one as the speaker contrasts his wish for peace with his interlocutor’s desire for war.

4. Motets and sonatas by Rosenmüller

4.1 The recording Johann Rosenmüller in Exile presents sacred motets alongside sonatas by this significant and influential composer. Born in Oelsnitz, Germany, Rosenmüller attained important musical posts in Leipzig before being imprisoned in 1655, together with some of the schoolboys whom he taught, on accusations of sodomy. By 1658 he had joined the ranks of a long list of important seventeenth-century musicians as an employee of San Marco in Venice (he worked there as a trombonist), and later gained a post at Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà. Like many northern composers of the age, Rosenmüller fused important aspects of Italianate styles with those of German-speaking lands, resulting in music that often features quixotic shifts in mood, harmonic unpredictability, and extreme virtuosity.

4.2 The cantatas on the present recording are preserved only in manuscript, and, as is true of the majority of Rosenmüller’s compositions, most have not yet been issued in recordings or modern editions. Although they likely date to Rosenmüller’s Italian period, they are preserved in German sources rather than Italian ones, a sign that they were in demand. The cantatas are organized sectionally, and Kerala Snyder has argued that they reflect the influence of secular Italian compositions by Cesti and Carissimi.[4] Rosenmüller uses the sectional organization to respond to the text: alternating arias, arioso sections, and recitatives, the composer maintains a flexible approach to form and style in order to convey most expressively the meanings of the words. “Salve mi Jesu,” for example, opens with baritone Jesse Blumberg’s tentative plea over a calm walking bass, as the speaker anticipates the peacefulness of paradise. A more emphatic cry is set in the recitative style, while the speaker’s “moaning and weeping” are conveyed in an affecting descending chromatic line. A joyful, dance-like section follows, in which the speaker’s music anticipates his redemption even as his text continues pleading. A triple-meter section, here performed with a moving, calm sweetness, looks forward to salvation. For the final line of the text Rosenmüller returns to duple meter, resulting in a sense of serenity. In this cantata as well as the others, ACRONYM’s continuo section uses creative instrumentation and sensitive realization to bring each of these sections to life (the almost percussive sounds of the dance-like sections are especially effective), and the string interludes and interjections are played with remarkable clarity, sense of ensemble, and expression that serves to underscore the meanings conveyed by Blumberg’s rich, dexterous voice.

4.3 The sonate da camera on the disc show the influence of both Italian and German traditions. The full five-part scoring recalls the German consort tradition of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, while the dance genres represent current Italian fashion in 1667 (the year 1670, given on the album, is the date of the second printing). Most of the sonatas in this collection adhere to a standard form, and this is true of the three sonatas on this disc: they consist of an extended, multi-section sinfonia followed by a sequence of dance movements (alemanda-correnta-ballo-sarabanda). The decision by ACRONYM to include these sonate da chiesa on a disc with sacred vocal works is an interesting one; even if these sonatas are not likely to have been performed in church, their juxtaposition with Rosenmüller’s sacred vocal pieces highlights the extent to which this composer (and many others) incorporated dance topoi in their sacred music.[5] The performers assume the characters of each movement fully and convincingly. The slow movements are poised and expressive, and the faster dances are exciting, even exuberant.

5. Sonatas from the Wunderkammer

5.1 One of Rosenmüller’s students in Venice in the early 1670s, Johann Philipp Krieger, is among the ten composers featured on the album Wunderkammer. Best known among the others is Antonio Bertali; also included are works by Samuel Capricornus, Adam Drese, Andreas Oswald, Daniel Eberlin, Philipp Jakob Rittler, Georg Piscator, Alessandro Poglietti, and Clemens Thieme. The title of the disc refers to the collections of curiosities and artworks assembled by noblemen, noblewomen, and wealthy families, as well as academicians and natural philosophers throughout Europe, beginning in the Renaissance. Analogies between the Wunderkammer (also called Kunstkammer) and music have been proposed in the past (including by the present writer),[6] and ACRONYM now adds to that analogy by presenting previously unknown and unrecorded sonatas, some of which “contain harmonic eccentricities, rhythmic or metric irregularities, or structural curiosities” (CD booklet, n.p.). All of the composers on the disc are linked to northern, central, or east-central European courts, such as those of Vienna, Dresden, Stuttgart, Kroměříž, and Warsaw, and the works are characteristic of the so-called stylus phantasticus that flourished there during the latter half of the seventeenth century.[7] The players of ACRONYM realize the capricious, rhapsodic style of these pieces with drama and conviction. Especially enjoyable is the quirky metrical profile of the sonata a6 by Drese. The Bertali sonata a2 is a beautiful example of this important composer’s work; the opening is executed with an intense rhetorical depth supported by lush continuo playing, while later sections in a lighter character seem effortlessly virtuosic. The CD booklet makes special note of the full, complex counterpoint in the sonata a8 by Thieme, of which the performers offer a clear and insightful reading.

5.2 Far from “normalizing” themselves by becoming absorbed into the musical mainstream, as Taruskin predicted would happen to HIP artists, the musicians of ACRONYM, together with Les Canards Chantants and baritone Jesse Blumberg, have, with these four recordings, entered into uncharted territory. The treasures that they have uncovered and the strong musical statements that they have made attest to the vitality of the period-instrument movement. Working both with scholars and as scholars, grappling with new/old sources and new/old instruments, they present an array of treasures and curiosities that both satisfy the listener and create the urge to learn and hear more.

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