Friday 27 January 2017

Getting beyond music history: Rossi's The Songs of Solomon in engaging performances

Salomone Rossi - The Songs of Solomon
Salomone Rossi Hebrew Psalms & Instrumental Music;Profeti della Quinta; Pan Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 20 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Salomone Rossi's Hebrew psalms and instrumental music in engaging performances

Salomone Rossi's Hashirim Asher LiShlomo - The Songs of Solomon, printed in Venice in 1623, is something of a landmark in Western classical music, the first works printed with Hebrew texts. The music remains rather more of a musicological phenomenon than a musical one, and there have been few accounts of them on disc. Profeti della Quinta is an ensemble founded in Israel but currently based in Switzerland. Ruth, on this blog, was impressed with their performance at the 2016 London Festival of Baroque Music (see our review), and it is heartening to be able to welcome their disc on the Pan Classics label. This disc is not new, it has been around since 2009, but has been re-issued.

Salomone Rossi - The Songs of Solomon title page
Salomone Rossi - The Songs of Solomon
title page
Rossi's 1623 publication contains 33 Hebrew psalms but here we get a selection interwoven with Rossi's instrumental music to give a more balanced picture of the composer and to provide a variety of textures.

Rossi lived in Mantua at the same time as his distinguished fellow composers, Ludovico Viadana, Giaches de Wert and Claudio Monteverdi. As both were violinists, Monteverdi and Rossi must perhaps have worked as colleagues. Rossi's instrumental music lives in the same world as Monteverdi's music, virtuosic, full of ideas, rhythmically varied and full of harmonic surprises.

The music is written generally for two melody instruments and basso continuo and Profeti della Quinta ring the changes by using violin, flute and cornet, and similarly use a varied grouping for the continuo. The performances are rhythmically alert, intimate and appealing, real chamber music. The music falls generally into the longer sonate, often based on pre-existing music which Rossi developed variation-like and the shorter preludial sinfonias.

These form a nice contrast to the vocal music, the two being interleaved. The contrast is highlighted because Rossi's Hebrew psalms are relatively conservative in style. They certainly bear no comparison to Monteverdi's Latin psalm settings.

But there is a reason. Music was ostensibly forbidden in the synagogue and by writing in a style which eschewed secular modern taste, and ensured that the words were audible, went a long way to making it acceptable.

Rossi published the music in 1623 (the title is of course a pun on Rossi's first name), but it may have its origins in the construction of the ghetto in Mantua in 1612.  It would not last, of the 50,000 or so inhabitants of Mantua, around 2,230 were Jews and the peaceful cohabitation between Jew and non-Jew was brought to an abrupt end in 1630 (the year Rossi died) when the Jews were expelled. For the printing, Rossi imaginatively combined the Hebrew with the Western music, writing whole words right to left in the Hebrew manner leaving the singer to work out where the syllables go.

Perhaps the reason why the psalms are not better known is their conservatism, but Rossi brings great harmonic invention to the textures. And by forgetting their origins and performing the music as sacred vocal chamber music, Profeti dell Quinta (singing one voice to a part bring a nice vibrancy to the music.

The psalms come from Rossi's 1622/23 publication Hashirim Asher LiShlomo whilst the instrumental music comes from Il primo libro delle sinfonie e gagliarde a 3-5 voci (1607)

The CD booklet includes an excellent article about Rossi and his music, and full texts in English, German, French and Hebrew transliteration, and the original Hebrew.

The virtues of this disc are that the performers forget the musicological history behind the music and make it work as music.

The group's discography is well worth seeking out, their most recent disc is one of music by Luzzasco Luzzaschi (on Pan), and there is a second disc of Rossi's music on Linn.

Salomone Rossi (c1570-c1630) - The Songs of Solomon: Hebrew Prayers and Instrumental Music
Profeti della Quinta (Doron Schleifer countertenor, David Feldman countertenor, Eitan Drori tenor, David Norman tenor, Elam Rotem bass & direction, Corina Marti recorder, Josue Melenez Pelaez cornet & recorder, Leila Schayegh violin, Tore Eketorp viola da gamba & violone, Michal Gondko theorbo & baroque guitar, Alen Honigova harpsichord, positive organ & direction)
Recorded October 2008, Alte Kirche Boswi (Switzerland)
PAN CLASSICS PC10343 1CD [56.35]
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