For some periods of its long history Venice was the most alive and artistically innovative city in Italy. Around the turn of the seventeenth century it was more – the veritable music capital of Europe. Musicians from north and west Europe stayed there to learn from the composers, instrumentalists and singers who had either been born in Venice, or had themselves gravitated to the Republic's glorious and inspiring cultural (and physical) environment. Only Dario Castello (fl. 1600-1630) of those composers presented here falls into the first category.
Building on the economic and political high points of the sixteenth century when the visual splendor of the city was manifest in the work of such artists as Titian and Tintoretto, the unassailably excellent creative community of San Marco flourished as never before or since right through to the end of the seventeenth century; then a more domestic set of priorities slowly took over and La Serenissima began a decline – perhaps in confidence in itself as much as anything – that ended in Napoleon's inglorious take over in May 1797.
Here is a new CD from Harmonia Mundi which celebrates not exactly the draw and lure of the sinking city (then as now) but the remarkably unselfconscious sense of achievement by half a dozen or so composers active there around the year 1625. At first sight your reaction might be that a dozen and a half tracks of otherwise disparate recorder-led music wouldn't have much coherence, integrity, or appeal. Indeed, no piece on this 67½ minute CD lasts longer than 6½ minutes.
Yet you'd be very wrong. The plying of Swiss recorder virtuoso Maurice Steger and his accomplished 15-strong ensemble quickly wrap you up in the delights of music which is still largely underexposed. There is a vivacity and profundity in the pieces that will probably catch you unawares. Listen to the compelling lilt of the Canzone a 2 violini by Tarquinio Merula (1590/95-1665) [tr.7], for instance; and the contrasts in pitch of the next track, Giovanni Fontana's (1571?-1630) Sonata #4 for violin – or other instrument: Steger opts for bass dulcian!
Variety and contrast are two key characteristics of this release. The very next track is a delicate and understated Symphonia by the composer active longest into the seventeenth century, Marco Uccellini (1603-1680). Each one of his pieces will delight: there are complex rhythms; recorder passages [tr.9, 2 minutes in, for example] so incredibly virtuosic that it's a wonder that Steger would ever speak or drink again; and novel yet compelling instrumentation. But the reflective, contemplative obverse is rarely far away – in honor of the way Venice is usually experienced… the brief Sinfonia XI [tr.10] by Salomone Rossi (c.1570-1630), the oldest of these musicians in the year in question, makes a startling interlude; while the Sonata II [tr.11] of Dario Castello (his only work here) contains its own alternations of mood, tempi and spirit. In ways which could hardly be imagined if you are new to this repertoire, Steger provides deep delight after deep delight.
The immediacy and technical brilliance, coupled with a genuineness and musical modesty, of Steger and his ensemble cannot be faulted. The sounds are sweet where they need to be gentle and fetching; penetrating when vigor is called for; and suave and persuasive throughout. The recording is close and focused. The liner notes are clear and informative; they stress how the kind of music we hear on this CD did in fact rely on the polyphonic traditions current in Venice at the time. Once you start to think of the music this way, more and more examples suggest themselves to you – even in the most modest of pieces.
The whole is likely to become the kind of CD one wants to play from the beginning on reaching the vivacious yet substantial last track – yet another Sonata of Uccellini's, surely the single most significant composer "find" on this release; only two CDs currently available are dedicated to Uccellini's enigmatic and original music. To compliment the musicians for the hint of a rough edge would be to mischaracterize their sustained joie de vivre. But there is a spontaneity and delight in their approach that is surely as redolent of the spirit with which musicians in Venice almost four hundred years ago must have sat down to play as anything we can otherwise accept nowadays. Somehow the very nature of the instruments employed has been captured on this disk with an inevitability that is hard to deny.
As perhaps was intended, Steger has here provided a series of pointers to composers whose work will bear further exploration. But, despite appearances perhaps, Venezia 1625 isn't a sampler. It's certainly a tribute to the glorious music of the period; at times the music here presented hints at the spacious nature of the splendid choral music for which San Marco and its world are better known. Without looking inward, Steger has shown, rather than told, us how beautiful, inspiring and forward thinking (this was the time when the violin was becoming increasingly used) the musical world of Venice at the beginning of the seventeenth century truly was. Highly recommended.
Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey