Thursday 14 November 2019

Barbara Strozzi: Virtuosa of Venice - Fieri Consort

Barbara Strozzi - Virtuosa of Venice - Fieri Consort
Barbara Strozzi Virtuosa of Venice; Fieri Consort; Fieri Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
An enterprising collection of Strozzi's songs, arias and duets from this talented consort

Barbara Strozzi was one of the most prolific female composers of her time, publishing seven books of secular music and one sacred collection. On this disc from the members of the Fieri Consort, on Fieri Records, with Harry Buckoke (viola da gamba), Toby Carr (theorbo and baroque guitar) and Aileen Henry (baroque harp) perform items from Barbara Strozzi's collections, alongside music by her contemporaries, Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, Bartolomeo Selma y Salaverde, Benedetto Ferrari, Claudio Monteverdi, and Ascanio Maione. Unlike previous discs from the Fieri Consort, we do not hear them as an ensemble but in a series of solos and duets as their selections wander widely of Strozzi's published output.

Coming from an artistic family (her father was the Venetian poet Giulio Strozzi) Barbara Strozzi was encouraged in her musical career with her father employing Francesco Cavalli as her teacher, and founding the Accademia degli Unisoni to showcase her talents. Giulio Strozzi's musical links were strong, and he wrote libretti for both Monteverdi and Cavalli.

But the sheer fact of a woman performing in public was still suspect and thought wanton, with contemporaries showing ambivalence over Strozzi's virtue, doubts that still occur today though there seems little concrete evidence beyond the tutting of her male colleagues. We know that she had children by a relationship with a married aristocrat, and in fact on his death her daughters' dowries to enter a convent were paid by the aristocrat's widow, and he was a friend of Barbara's father. So both sides of the family seem to have been in some way complaisant.

It does not help that Strozzi's songs often have suggestive, rather sexy words. She was clearly an enchanting performer, and really capitalised on this, one contemporary said that she could 'steal the souls of her listeners through their ears with sweetness'.

All this raises the issue of quite what you want Strozzi's arias and duets to actually sound like.
There is no doubting the technical proficiency and beauty of tone of the six singers of the Fieri Consort - Lucinda Cox and Hannah Ely, sopranos, Nancy Cole, mezzo-soprano, Tom Kelly and Josh Cooter, tenors, Ben McKee, bass-baritone. They all opt for a quite a clean lined sound, which brings out the elegance and clarity of Strozzi's vocal lines, no matter quite how elaborate they are.

The duet, I baci, which opens the disc is full of references to sweet, enticing kisses, 'wantonly they merge', 'their sweetest fury', whilst Lucinda Cox and Hannah Ely sing with quite a pure, clean-limbed charm which does not quite bring out the teasing suggestiveness of the music. In the early part of the recital, these kisses and sighs seem rather clean and innocent here, whilst the music would seem to have more it. The two sopranos get the lions share of the material, and it is with the more serious items that their approach appeals. Here, in Monteverdi's Si dolce e il tormento Hannah Ely brings out the piece's poignancy whilst in Strozzi's L'eraclito amoroso, Lucinda Cox is nicely expressive, and the climax of the disc is a finely expressive and intense account of the highly chromatic Lagrime mie by Hannah Ely.

Also, Cox and Ely have quite similar voices which blend beautifully, something which is probably highly desirable in a vocal ensemble but these duets seem to want more contrast. When Hannah Ely duets with Ben McKee's wonderfully resonant bass-baritone in Morso e bacio, or when Lucinda Cox duets with Tom Kelly then the result is rather striking. Josh Cooter and Tom Kelly also bring a greater degree of intensity to their duet Al battitor di bronzo (To his cruel lady's brass door-knocker).

Besides the vocal items, the recital is interspersed with instrumental pieces by Kapsberger, and throughout the three instrumentals provide just the right sort of virtuoso support for the singers.

This is a well-chosen recital beautifully sung, which enables the listener to explore the variety of Barbara Strozzi's secular music. If you like your performances with clean lines, full of clarity and a sense of innocence, then this disc will appeal.

Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger - Prelude X
Barbara Strozzi - I baci
Barbara Strozzi - Morso e bacio
Barbara Strozzi - Sospira respira
Bartolomeo Selma y Salaverde - Vestiva hi colli passeggiato
Barbara Strozzi - Begli occhi
Barbara Strozzi - Il ritorno
Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger - Kapsberger
Benedetto Ferrari - Amanti io vi so dire
Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger - Prelude III
Barbara Strozzi - Al battitor di bronzo
Claudio Monteverdi - Si dolce e'l tormento
Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger - Prelude XI
Barbara Strozzi - L'eraclito amoroso
Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger - Toccata Xi
Barbara Strozzi -Grande allegrezza di cuore
Niccolo Fontei - Dio ti salvi pastor
Ascanio Maione - Ricercara sopra il canto permo di costanzo festa per sonar l'arpa
Barbara Strozzi -Lagrime mie
Barbara Strozzi - Conclusione dell'opera
Fieri Consort (Lucinda Cox, Hannah Ely, Nancy Cole, Tom Kelly, Josh Cooter, Ben McKee)
Harry Buckoke (viola da gamba)
Toby Carr (theorbo and baroque guitar)
Aileen Henry (baroque harp)
Recorded Alpheton New Maltins, 26-28 November 2018
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