18 October 2014


CD REVIEW: THE MEDICI COUNTERTENOR (Glossa GCD923501)FRANCESCA CACCINI (1587 – circa 1645), GIULIO CACCINI (1550 – 1618), ALESSANDRO CICCOLINI, SIGISMONDO D’INDIA (circa 1582 – 1629), GIOVANNI CAMILLO DI PRIMI (?), FRANCESCO LAMBARDI (1587 – 1642), GIROLAMO MONTESARDO (1580 – 1620), CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI (1567 – 1643), JOHANN NAUWACH (1595 – 1630); and GIOVANNI TRABACI (circa 1575 – 1647): The Medici Castrato – a Homage to Gualberto MagliRaffaele Pè, countertenor; Chiara Granata, triple harp; David Miller, theorbo [Recorded in St. James’s Church, Keelings Road, Dengie, Essex, UK, 30 June and 2 – 4 July 2013; Glossa GCD923501; 1CD, 56:59; Available from Amazon (UK), fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

The efforts of gifted countertenors and mezzo-sopranos have restored to the names of a number of the great castrati of the Eighteenth Century—Caffarelli, Carestini, Farinelli, Senesino—at least a modicum of the notoriety that they enjoyed in the years in which their voices were heard on Europe’s stages. The names of these singers’ Seventeenth-Century ancestors, the singers whose careers paralleled the infancy of opera, largely remain hidden in manuscripts and musicological tomes, however. Even if circumstantial associations and sketchy history are the only sources available to Twenty-First-Century observers, the name Giovanni Gualberto Magli deserves the same reverence granted to the legacies of the later singers whose voices inspired Händel, Porpora, Vivaldi, and the eminent masters of the Baroque. When Claudio Monteverdi’s La favola d’Orfeo was first performed at the Mantua court of Francesco IV Gonzaga on 24 February 1607, Magli is known from contemporary correspondence to have sung Musica in the opera’s Prologue, Prosperina in Act Four, and likely either the Messaggera in Act Two or Speranza in Act Three. This alone earns for the Florentine castrato, a pupil of Giulio Caccini, a place of prominence in the chronology of opera from its birth with Jacopo Peri’s Dafne to the scores of today’s composers—a place of prominence that listeners who hear this disc of music likely inspired by Magli will undoubtedly be motivated to award him. Regrettably, from a musical perspective, at least, modern listeners have only the recordings of Alessandro Moreschi to offer hints of how castrati might have sounded. Moreschi was recorded when he was in his forties, at ages at which singers like Caffarelli and Gizziello reportedly still sang very well. Perhaps Moreschi was past his best years when his admittedly primitive recordings were made, but it is virtually impossible to imagine the singer heard in the Gramophone and Typewriter Company recordings credibly intoning Speranza’s ‘Ecco l’atra palude, ecco il nocchiero’ from La favola d’Orfeo on the operatic stage, the resonant B5 that crowns his famous recording of the Bach/Gounod ‘Ave Maria’ notwithstanding. Hearing the exquisite performances on The Medici Castrato, it is also impossible to imagine Moreschi in his prime rivaling the glorious singing of young Italian countertenor Raffaele Pè. Indeed, it is difficult to believe that even Magli himself could have sung this music so effectively. His importance to the early development of Italian vocal music renders Magli an artist worthy of homage from his stylistic inheritors: neither he nor the composers represented on The Medici Castrato could hope for finer tributes than they here receive from Raffaele Pè.

A project like this disc can succeed only if it has at its core an artist for whom the music is an experience rather than an experiment. Stylishness and carefully-researched historical context are laudable qualities that contribute mightily to the basic effectiveness of music like that on The Medici Castrato, but even these attributes fall flat, especially on a recording, if they are not assimilated with the kind of omnipresent concentration of spirit that can at best only be partially taught at conservatories. Singing in its most innocuous form is a form of ritual sacrifice: at the level of dedication demanded by a recording like this one, it is virtually a symbolic martyrdom. It is not enough for a singer to have a beautiful voice, which Mr. Pè certainly possesses. In order to inundate the listener with the innermost emotions of the music and text, the singer must first connect with them on a level that transcends ego, intellect, and even musicality. There must exist between music and singer a discernible symbiosis, and this trait is apparent in every note that Mr. Pè sings and every word that he enunciates on this disc. One of the most damaging developments in the Performing Arts in the past quarter-century is the way in which the designation of ‘artist’ must no longer be earned. With his singing on The Medici Castrato, Mr. Pè wins the right to be regarded as a true artist, not only because the quality of his singing is so exceptional but also because he submerses himself in this music so that it becomes part of him.

The collaboration that Mr. Pè shares with his accompanists, Chiara Granata on arpa doppia and David Miller on theorbo, is no less remarkable—and no less crucial—than his earnest relationship with the music. The stylishness of Ms. Granata’s and Mr. Miller’s playing is impeccable, but they never seem bound by conventions of historically-informed practice. It is clear that they, like Mr. Pè, regard this music as a consortium of living organisms, each selection having its own unique identity that contrasts with its companions on this disc. The Medici Castrato is both a commemoration of the work of one of the unheralded trailblazers in vocal music and a travelogue that documents the geographical progress of his career. The changes of scenery among the selections are audible in the musicians’ playing, the aural profile of pieces composed in Mantua differing from that of music written in Florence or Naples. Throughout their playing on this disc, both Ms. Granata and Mr. Miller are unperturbed by the difficulties of the music. Ms. Granata’s finger-numbing account of Giovanni Maria Trabaci’s Toccata seconda per l'arpa is astounding both in its virtuosity and in the expressivity that the player evinces without imposing any degree of external sentimentality upon the music. This perfectly-matched pair of musicians share Mr. Pè’s commitment, and the three of them display the unforced camaraderie and simple joy in making music together that have become all too rare.

It is only natural that an adventure intended to retrace the globetrotting of one of the first ‘star’ singers should begin with a tribute to the creation upon which his reputation is largely founded, Monteverdi’s L'Orfeo. Combining Musica’s ‘Dal mio Permesso amato a voi ne vego’ from the opera’s Prologue, the Primo intermezzo, Speranza’s ‘Ecco l'atra palude, ecco il nocchiero,’ a brief excerpt from the instrumental ritornello from Orfeo’s ‘Possente spirto,’ and Prosperina’s ‘Signor, quell’infelice,’ Mr. Pè offers a tremendously effective opera in miniature that distills the dramatic ambiguities of Monteverdi’s score into a pungent essence that carries nearly the same weight as the complete opera. The reverence of Mr. Pè’s delivery of Musica’s lines, emerging from a primordial clash of harmonies, is piercing, his pronouncement of the line ‘Io la musica son, ch’ai dolci accenti’ gleaming. He uses vibrato judiciously, employing straight tone to accentuate Monteverdi’s fundamental chromaticism, and the austerity of his singing of ‘Ecco l’atra palude’ is sonorously recondite. Prosperina’s ‘Signor, quell’infelice’ draws from Mr. Pè especially radiant singing, his voicing of ‘Deh, se da queste luci amorosa dolcezza unqua traesti’ glowing with the luminosity evoked by the text. The naturalness of the singer’s way with Monteverdi’s music is unmistakable and haunting in the best sense.

Emblematic of Magli’s sojourn in Brandenburg are pieces by Johann Nauwach and Giovanni Camillo Di Primi. The former’s ‘Amarilli, mia bella’ is a lovely work, and the lush imagery of the text prompts Mr. Pè to sing with inviolable attention. In Nauwach’s ‘Tempesta di dolcezza su l'anima mi versa Amor,’ too, he sings as though solely for himself: rather than projecting the sentiments of this music with exaggerated dimensions as though he were aiming at the last row of a concert hall, this singer makes of each phrase a very personal utterance that is shared with the listener as if by chance. The words of Nauwach’s ‘Jetzund kömpt die Nacht herbey’ also shape a performance that seems to come as much from Mr. Pè’s soul as from his throat. Di Primi’s ‘Se fama al mondo,’ one of the earliest surviving arias for solo voice published in Germany, receives a performance that undulates with the shifting moods of the sonnet. In all of the selections on The Medici Castrato, the poetic prescience of Mr. Pè’s use of words is indicative of a keen sensitivity not only to the layers of meaning within the contexts of the musical settings but also to the enduring literary significance of the texts.

The familial genius of Florentine father and daughter Giulio and Francesca Caccini provided Magli, who was a pupil of the former, with music that must have been nearly perfect for his voice, and so it also proves for Mr. Pè. The emotional directness of his performance of the father’s ‘Sfogava con le stelle,’ his voice touched by sonic starlight, is matched by the searching intensity of his singing of the daughter’s ‘Dispiegate, guance amate.’ Even when the music is most difficult, Mr. Pè’s vocalism is effortless, the pain in the texts conveyed through shading of his tone rather than vocal stress. This is especially true of his performance of Sigismondo D'India’s Lamento di Giasone, ‘Ancidetemi pur, dogliosi affani.’ Jason’s sorrow throbs in Mr. Pè’s singing, but neither the singer’s rhythmic vigor nor his preservation of consistently artful phrasing is sacrificed to the character’s desolation. His performance of D’India’s ‘Piangono al pianger mio le fere e i sassi’ is also affectingly dolorous without being heavy-handed, the feeling conveyed by the crispness of his diction rather than any artificial darkening of the tone.

The quiet charm of Neapolitan composer Francesco Lambardi’s ‘O felice quel giorno’ is highlighted by Mr. Pè’s singing, the bright patina of his timbre giving the simple melodic line an alluring sheen. The long-sustained pitches of Girolamo Montesardo’s ‘Hor che la nott'ombrosa’ also provide Mr. Pè with music that is virtually ideal for his voice. The surety of his tuning is exceptional, and the ease of his ascents into his upper register enables flashes of psychological lightning to illuminate the musical firmament without scorching the delicate tonal landscape. His singing displays complete comfort in the treacherous region of E5 and F5, where the voices of many countertenors weaken, but his performances on The Medici Castrato are notable for the evenness of Mr. Pè’s tones throughout his range.

Composed in 2013 by Baroque violinist and musicologist Alessandro Ciccolini in homage to Magli, ‘Solo et pensoso’ is a well-constructed piece that breathes the same air as the earlier pieces on The Medici Castrato without being a straightforward replica of any of the music heard on the disc. Written especially for this recording, Mr. Ciccolini’s work reveals a percipient acquaintance with both the music sung by Magli in the Seventeenth Century and the singular voice of Mr. Pè. ‘Solo et pensoso’ is an expertly-crafted piece that wholly succeeds in its aim of paying tribute to one of the most masterful singers of the early years of opera as it is now known: that success is solidified by the devotion with which Mr. Pè sings the music.

Raffaele Pè is a young singer poised to inscribe his name in the annals of musical history among those of the finest modern countertenors. Combining his voice with the rich playing of Chiara Granata and David Miller, he exuberantly memorializes Gualberto Magli with elegant, flawlessly stylish performances of music important in the great castrato’s career. What makes The Medici Castrato such a gladdening release, though, is its introduction of an artist who, following the path initiated by his illustrious Seventeenth-Century forebear, is destined to be one of the most memorable singers of his own time.