Thursday 2 July 2020

Il gondoliere Veneziano: A musical voyage through Venice - baritone Holger Falk evokes the musical world of the 18th century gondolier in this imaginative disc

Il gondoliere Veneziano: A musical voyage through Venice; Holger Falk, Nuovo Aspetto, Merzouga; Prospero
Il gondoliere Veneziano: A musical voyage through Venice
; Holger Falk, Nuovo Aspetto, Merzouga; Prospero

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 July 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A delightful exploration of 18th century Venetian gondoliers' song, mixing the songs with sound-scape to take the listener on a journey through the city

Not another disc about Venice you might think, picking up Il Gondoliere Veneziano from the Swiss label Prospero and Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Cologne. Baritone Holger Falk's project is far more interesting and imaginative than a lazy trawl through existing repertoire. Under the title Il gondoliere Veneziano: A musical voyage through Venice, Falk has recorded with the ensemble Nuovo Aspetto and the sound artists Merzouga, and the subject of the whole disc is Venetian gondoliers' song from the 18th century.

The Venetian canzoni da battello (literally, 'songs sung on a Boat') were everywhere in Venice, and were spread across Europe in music and in literature - the image of the singing gondolier crops up regularly. And whilst most were in Venetian dialect, some were in literary Italian, and Goethe talks about being able to request songs of Tasso or Ariosto! The singing gondolier is still around in Venice, of course, but the 20th and 21st centuries have wrought significant change to his repertoire, and nowadays he is most likely to singing a Neapolitan song or Just one cornetto.

Holger Falk & Nuovo Aspetto in Il gondoliere Veneziano at the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
Holger Falk & Nuovo Aspetto in Il gondoliere Veneziano at the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
But in the 18th century, canzoni da battello were a distinct repertoire, and not only quoted by composers but pulished in collections and in London the ubiquitous John Walsh (most famous for his pirate editions of Handel), brought out a collection. On this disc, Holger Falk and Nuovo Aspetto have combed these archives, and put together a selection of 12 anonymous canzoni da battello and they perform them alongside songs and arias by Domenico Cerutti, Pierto Auletta, Johann Simon Mayr, and Andre Campra inspired by canzoni da battello. And of course, no disc on 18th century Venice would be complete without Vivaldi, so we get three concerto movements. Linking it all are sound compositions by Merzouga (Eva Popplein and Janko Hanushevsky) based on field-recordings made in modern day Venice, so that the disc really does feel like wandering through the Venetian streets and canals. And we start with Tasso! Falk sings a haunting unaccompanied song, setting the words of the great 16th century poet, inspired by Giuseppe Tartini's Sonata XVII in D minor for solo violin, 'Aria del Tasso'.

Holger Falk & Nuovo Aspetto in Il gondoliere Veneziano at the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
Holger Falk & Nuovo Aspetto in Il gondoliere Veneziano at the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
Holger Falk has a beautifully mellifluous baritone, and in the more lyrical numbers it is wonderfully easy to imagine him singing to you in his gondola on a warm Venetian night (and getting an extra tip for it of course, at the end of the evening). But the songs aren't all simply seduction numbers, and they vary greatly in character with Falk showing himself equally adept at the tongue twisting and the highly characterful. It is this variety which makes the disc such a delight, the mixture of the hauntingly lyrical, the plangent, the lively characterful and the down-right toe-tapping.

Those credited particular composers can be more developed in their musical structure, but still immediate and varied. Domenico Cerutti's Il passaggio notturno in gondoletta is delightful, and receives a lovely intimate delivery, Pietro Auletta's Sono in zerbini come le rose is lively and characterful, Johann Simon Mayr's La biondina in gondoletta is perhaps the best known on the disc, and Andre Campra's Tant de valeur from Tancrede takes us until the realms of the French Bqroaue, whilst Cerutti's Il gondoliere veneziano is full of character.

The orchestrations are imaginatively done, and the frequent use of a salterio (psaltery, an instrument that was made and used in 18th century Venice) gives the songs an exotic feel, as does the chitarra battente (a type of folk guitar with brass strings).

Merzouga's soundscapes, recorded on location in modern-day Venice, do more than just provide a bit of colour, they take us into the city and the way music and soundscape bleeds into each other makes the songs part of this sound city (in some songs, Falk starts unaccompanied over the sound of water lapping before the instruments come in). This might be too artful for some, but I found it well done and enjoyed the resulting creation.

The movements of Vivaldi concertos provide some instrumental pauses, but I would have liked more detail in the CD booklet as to why the music was chosen. And this is true generally of the disc, I would have liked some sort of editorial narrative to explain what had been chosen and why.

This disc is far more than simply a delightful compilation evoking Venice; the sounds of the gondoliers' songs were, for many 18th and 19th century visitors, the sound of Venice par excellence and it is this vanished sound world that this disc seeks to re-capture, with scholarship masked by imagination, charm, and a light touch.

Il gondoliere Veneziano
Anonymous Venetian canzoni da battello
Songs by  Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), Domenico Cerutti, Pietro Auletta (1693/4-1771), Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845), Andre Campra (1660-1744)
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) - movements from Concerto in G minor RV107, Concerto in G minor RV 105, Concerto in D major RV 90 'Il Gardellino'

Holger Falk (baritone)
Nuovo Aspetto (Elisabeth Seitz - salterio, Almut Frenzel - violin, Leonard Schelb - flute/recorder,  Clara Blessing - oboe, Heidi Groger - cello/viola da gamba, Sefan Maas - baroque guitar/chritarra battente, Johanna Seitz - harp, Michael Ducker - lute, Michele Claude - percussion)
Nicolo Scarparao - actor
Merzouga (Eva Popplein, Janko Hanushevsky)
Recorded 14-17 August 2018, WDR Funkhaus am Wallrafplatz, Cologne, Germany; 19-21 November 2018, field recordings, Venice
PROSPERO PROSP0003 1CD  (Buy CD or download links)

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  • Venice's Fragrance: this delightful disc from Nurial Rial and Artemandoline celebrates the 18th century's love affair with the mandolin - CD review
  • 'Home


  1. In another part of the square, on a different stage, a man and woman sung Venetian ballads, in two parts, very agreeably, accompanied by a dulcimer.
    Charles Burney - The Present State of Music in France and Italy 1773

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  3. Very glad to see this review. I've been a fan of German baritone Holger Falk ever since I first heard his three discs of Poulenc songs, and my admiration grew with his four CDs devoted to Hanns Eisler's songs... not to mention a lovely Schubert Schwanengesang. And now he sounds equally at home in this Venetian repertoire! Not just a beautiful voice, but a linguistic chameleon...


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