Tuesday 3 November 2015

Convent, Court and Salon - three contrasting 17th century women composers at BREMF

The Viola da Gamba Player c. 1630–1640, (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) by Bernardo Strozzi
The Viola da Gamba Player
(said to be Barbara Strozzi)
c. 1630–1640, (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden)
by Bernardo Strozzi
Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi; Clare Wilkinson, BREMF Consort, Claire Williams, Alex McCartner, cond: Deborah Roberts; Brighton Early Music Festival at St Bartholomew's Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 Nov 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Wonderful music by three contrasting composers from 17th century, and all three were women

The theme of this year's Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) is Women: creators, enquirers, muses, enchanteners and the concert on 1 November 2015 at St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton contrasted the music of three very different women composers in 17th century Italy. The BREMF Consort, conductor Deborah Roberts, sang settings of Vespers psalms for double choir by the nun Chiaria Margarita Cozzolani whilst Clare Wilkinson (mezzo-soprano) accompanied by Claire Williams (organ) and Alex McCartney (theorbo) sang sacred and secular monodies by Francesca Cazzini, a professional musician at the Medici court, and songs and a cantata by the singer and composer Barbara Strozzi.

Chiari Margarita Cozzolani (1602-c1677) entered a convent at the age of 17, rising to serve the convent of Santa Radegonda in Milan as prioress and abbess. Her settings of Vespers psalms for double choir were published in 1650. We know very little about her, but she clearly knew Monteverdi's music. The BREMF Consort, conductor Deborah Roberts, sang a set of substantial settings for Vespers, the psalms Deus in adiutorium, Dixit Dominus, Confitebor tibi, Beatus vir, Laudate pueri and the concluding Magnificat. All were written for double choir and though originally sung by the nuns, they were published in versions for SATB choir and this is what BREMF Consort performed, accompanied by Alex McCartney (theorbo) and Claire Williams (organ). Chiara Margarita Cozzolani's writing in all the pieces utilised the contrast between large scale tutti and smaller scale ensembles and solos. Chiara Margarita Cozzolani obviously liked dramatic effects, the juxtaposition of a large-scale choral tutti with a solo, and her music kept in constant motion with different sections each responding to a different part of the text. Some of the choral textures using high voices were ravishing, and Chiara Margarita Cozzolani certainly knew how to utilize Monterverdian procedures to her own ends.

The solo and small ensemble roles were all sung by members of the BREMF Consort . The choir is a mixture of amateur and student perform and Chiara Margarita Cozzolani was clearly writing for nuns of considerable technical ability. So the solo parts are quite a challenge; the performances ragne from the creditable to the very impressive (particularly one of the low basses). There was also a significant amount of unfamiliar music so this performance was quite a tour de force.

You only discover new music by performing it, and we must be grateful to BREMF for having the confidence to put on this major neglected work. Perhap there were moments when the impetus of the music dropped somewhat, and Chiara Margarita Cozzolani's inspiration seemed to jog along but overall these works deserve investigating further.

Interspersed between the Chiara Margarita Cozzolani pieces were Clare Wilkinson's performances of Francesca Caccini and Barbara Strozzi, accompanied by Alex McCartney (theorbo) and Claire Williams (organ).

Francesca Caccini (1587-1640) was the daughter of the singer and composer Giulio Caccini and she received a superb musical education, becoming one of the highest paid musicians at the Medici court. Little of her music survives, just her proto-opera La Liberazione di Ruggero dall'isolla di Alcina (which BREMF is also performing), and some sacred and secular monodies.

Jeus corona Virginum was a sacred piece, rather sober and hymn-like in its structure but with each verse getting progressively more elaborate in it ornamentation. Lo veggio i campi berdeggia was secular yet similar in style with some lovely ornamentation. Clare Wilkinson showed a lovely clear, bright mezzo-soprano voice with a beautiful ability to weave the elaborate ornaments into the line of the music. Hearing this music in a church the size of St. Bartholemews is not ideal, but Clare Wilkinson held our attention.

In the second half she was joined by Deborah Roberts (singing soprano) to perform Barbara Strozzi's duet Begli occhi. Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) was born in Venice and her musical training included lessons with Cavalli as well as support from her adopted father (whose natural daughter she may have been). She published a significant amount of her work, often writing the poems as well as the music. Begli occhi dealt, in delightful manner, with languishing love with Strozzi's vocal writing making the most of the intertwining of the two voices, full of suspension and false relations. The cantata Sul Rodano severo told of the trial and execution of Henri Cinq Mars the favourite of King Louis XIII of France. A long piee, in mainly free recitative-like arioso, the music never settled into arias except for one section of a ground bass, but daringly kept moving. The music changed with the emotions of the piece and stopped amost mid flow at the end. A daring and striking piece. Amore domiglione was more conventionally erotic but no less delightful.

Throughout the concert the instrumentalists Alex McCartney and Claire Williams, supported the musicians in fine style.

This was a great opportunity to exproe a wie variety of unjustly neglected 17th century music, and to contrast the styles of three very different Italian women. The concert is to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Other BREMF reviews on Planet Hugill:

Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter - Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens, Brighton Festival Youth Choir
Vision: The Imagined Testimony of Hildegard von Bingen - Niamh Cusack, The Telling, Celestial Sirens

Elsewhere on this blog:

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