Friday 15 December 2023

A remarkable cultural synthesis: Vache Baroque & La Vaghezza bring a lovely sense of dialogue to their celebrations of Salmone Rossi's Hebrew-texted The Songs of Solomon

Members of Vache Baroque and lutenist Kristiina Watt rehearsing at St John's Smith Square (Photo: The Musicians' Photographer)
Members of Vache Baroque and lutenist Kristiina Watt rehearsing at St John's Smith Square (Photo: The Musicians' Photographer)

A Baroque Hanukkah: Salmone Rossi, Thomas Campion, Heinrich Schütz, John Farmer, Francesco Cavalli, Henry Purcell, Thomas Ravenscroft, Thomas Weelkes; Vache Baroque, La Vaghezza; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed 13 December 2023

The culmination of Vache Baroque's celebrations of Salomone Rossi paired his Hebrew-texted psalm settings with music of his contemporaries in wonderfully engaged performances highlighting Rossi's distinctive place in the musical universe

In 1623, the Italian Jewish violinist and composer, Salomone Rossi, achieved an ambition that had been germinating since around 1610, when he published, השירים אשר לשלמה (Hashirim Asher leShlomo, The Songs of Solomon), a collection of Jewish liturgical texts in Hebrew set to polyphonic music in the modern Baroque tradition with little connection to the tradition of Jewish cantorial music. The result is a work of remarkable cultural synthesis. The name is also a mischievous pun as none of the texts that Rossi sets comes from the Song of Solomon!

In celebration of the 400th anniversary of Rossi's publication in Venice, Vache Baroque has been presenting its Rossi 400 Festival, the culmination of which was a concert at St John's Smith Square where Vache Baroque, director Jonathan Darbourne, joined forces with instrumentalists from La Vaghezza for a programme that mixed Rossi's psalm settings from The Songs of Solomon with Rossi's own instrumental music, psalm settings by Thomas Campion, Schütz, John Farmer, Cavalli, Purcell, Ravenscroft, and Weelkes.

The concert was during Hanukkah, the Jewish feast that takes place at the end of November or in December and which celebrates the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees. The concert did not directly reference Hanuakkah but instead brought out themes celebrated in the festival. One of the features of the programme was a compare and contrast element as Rossi's psalm settings were paired with settings of the same text by his contemporaries.

Salomone Rossi (c.1570-c.1628) is a fascinating figure. A talented violinist and composer, he worked at the court of the Duke of Mantua from the late 16th century until his death and was evidently highly regarded (including being accorded privileges that most Jews in Mantua were not). This means that he and Monteverdi were colleagues and that Rossi, besides playing in court entertainments and such, almost certainly took part in the premiere of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. Rossi's own published music was largely dances and madrigals.

Title page of the first edition of Hashirim asher leSholomo (Venice: Pietro e Lorenzo Bragadino, 1623)
Title page of the first edition of Rossi's Hashirim asher leSholomo
(Venice: Pietro e Lorenzo Bragadino, 1623)

But The Songs of Solomon demonstrates another side to him, as part of a Jewish musical community interested in modernising and innovating. The preface to The Songs of Solomon is multi-authored and the music in the collection was a direct result of Rossi's trying the music out with singers, Jewish we must presume. So that is a dozen years or so when Rossi and his circle, discussed, planned and made trials of the pieces before achieving publication.

The publication itself would have been a challenge. For a start music publishers did not usually print Hebrew words under music, and that was once Rossi had solved the conundrum of combining Western musical notation (read left to right) with Hebrew words (read right to left). And here, perhaps, we can imagine some of the discussions in Rossi's Jewish musical community about the ways of solving the problem.

The only time I have ever heard any of Rossi's Hebrew-texted music before, the performers made the mistake of aligning the performance rather too closely to the Jewish cantorial tradition. That mistake was not made here, what we heard was engaging, sometimes quite direct, Italian 17th-century vocal music that happened to have Hebrew words. Any wealthy Jewish family that had this music at a private celebration would be making a clear statement of synthesis, if not assimilation, demonstrating being part of contemporary Italian culture as well as Jewish heritage.

At St John's there were eight singers and six instrumentalists and the music during the evening meant that the performers configured and re-configured from theorbo accompanied solos right through to full-concerted. Apart from a couple of works, Rossi's vocal pieces were performed unaccompanied.

We began with Rossi's Baruchu et Adonai (Blessed are you, Lord), three voices singing off-stage in a lively piece full of movement. Thomas Campion's As by the streames of Babilon took us into a different tradition, the English sacred song written for domestic use. Essentially a sober lute song, performed by tenor Nick Pritchard and lutenist Kristiina Watt, Pritchard was beautifully expressive and combined fine diction with a lovely sense of line. Afterwards we heard one of Rossi's instrumental pieces, Sinfonia 9 with two violins interweaving in a melancholy manner, the result rather touching.

Rossi's setting of Psalm 123, Shir Hama'alot used all eight singers, creating a rather madrigalian feel, whilst the use of smaller groups of voices brought a sense of contrast. Though the texture was enlivened with moving inner parts, the setting seemed to place the primacy on hearing the words. Setting the same psalm, but in German, Schütz used the same number of singers but with instrumental accompaniment, using contrasts in tempo and in vocal groupings to create a terrific sense of momentum and drama.

John Farmer's My soul praise thou the Lord always (Psalm 146) returned us to the English tradition, this time four voices with lute, neat, sober, and homophonic, the singers bringing out the expressive primacy of the words. This is the start of an English tradition which leads through the metrical psalm singing of the 18th century into the glories of 19th century hymnody. Rossi's setting of Psalm 146, Haleluja haleli was performed by solo voice with lute, Betty Makharinsky and Kristiina Watt, expressive yet direct, with a lovely flexibility and strong words.

Rossi's instrumental piece, Sonata 8 sopra l'Aria: E tanto tempo ormai was very dance like and wonderfully engaging with the two violins weaving in and out of each other. Then came a shortened version of Francesco Cavalli's Beatus vir performed by Jonathan Darbourne, Bradley Smith and Tristan Hambleton with instrumental accompaniment. Cavalli's setting moved between vocal ensemble and solos, and varied from the sober to the dance-like, never staying in one place at time, yet always in vivid performances.

Rossi's joyful four-part setting of Psalm 80, Elohim hashivenu, was enlivened by bravura flourishes, with Rossi getting contrast by using smaller groupings, and contrasted finely with Rossi's invigorating instrumental dance, Gagliarda detta Zambalina. The first half ended with another setting of Psalm 80, the rich textures of Purcell's glorious O Lord God of hosts.

The second half opened with a strongly engaged account of Rossi's rather hymn-like five-part setting of Psalm Eight, Lamnatseach al hagidit, then Jolyon Loy gave expressively melancholy account of Thomas Ravenscroft's sober and dignified English version of the same psalm, with Kristiina Watt (lute) and Kate Conway (viola da gamba). Again, word were most important here. Another five-part Rossi setting, of Psalm 100 Mizmor letodah, mixed homophony with moving passages and little flourishes, all sung in a fluid, highly engaged manner. Schütz's setting of Psalm 100, Jubilate Deo omnis terra was a solo motet, wonderfully vividly delivered by Tristan Hambleton instrumental accompaniment. This wasn't a sober psalm setting but a wonderfully vivid narration with a strong sense of drama.

A pair of instrumental pieces came next, first Rossi's graceful and engaging Gagliarda detta la Norsina and then Andrea Falconiero's Bayle de los Dichos Diablos with its vividly fast violin writing.

Johann Hermann Schein's Ihr Heiligen, lobsingetdem Herren (Psalm 30) was a five-part motet with continuo accompaniment, full of vivid rhythms with Schein getting contrast by using smaller groups, then came joyful noise of Thomas Weelkes' five-part All ye people clap your hands. The twelfth of Purcell's Sonatas of III parts proved a lovely pause point, the two violinists giving a performance that was vivid and very free, the playing from all was very present, making the music seem new minted. Purcell's verse anthem Thy word is a lantern unto my feet (Psalm 119) brought everyone together with Jonathan Darbourne, Nick Pritchard and Tristan Hambleton taking the solo parts. This was a lovely, large-scale work with Purcell taking a fluid approach to the text, moving rapidly through emotions.

The evening ended with Rossi's Adon olam, a large-scale setting of hymn from the Jewish liturgy that I confess that I was not familiar with, it brought all the performers together and made us understand Rossi's distinctive talent. 

The whole evening was engrossing, both discovering Rossi's Hebrew texted music in such wonderfully idiomatic performances, but also seeing how his approach compared and contrasted to that of his peers. The evening also gave a very welcome different slant to the manic musical celebration of Christmas, along with introducing a quiet sense of dialogue that is much needed.

I do hope that Vache Baroque's Rossi 400 project will embolden other groups to perform Rossi's music.

Vache Baroque: Amy Wood, Betty Makharinsky, Clara Kanter, Jonathan Darbourne, Bradley Smith, Mick Pritchard, Jolyon Loy, Tristan Hambleton
La Vaghezza: Maya Kadish & Ignacio Ramal (violin), Gianluca Geremia (theorbo), Marco Crosetto (organ/harpsichord)
With Kate Conway (viola da gamba), Kristiina Watt (theorbo/lute)

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