21 September 2013

CD REVIEW: IO VIDI IN TERRA – 17th-Century Vocal Music (José Lemos, countertenor; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Deborah Fox, theorbo; Sono Luminus DSL-92172)

IO VIDI IN TERRA - José Lemos, Jory Vinikour, & Deborah Fox (Sono Luminus DSL-92172)

BENEDETTO FERRARI (circa 1603 – 1681), GIROLAMO FRESCOBALDI (1583 – 1643), MARCO DA GAGLIANO (1582 – 1643), CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI (1567 – 1643), TARQUINIO MERULA (1594 or 1595 – 1665), ALESSANDRO PICCININI (1566 – circa 1638), BARBARA STROZZI (1619 – 1638), and BERNARDO STORACE (dates uncertain): Io vidi in terra, 17th-Century Italian Vocal Music—José Lemos, countertenor; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Deborah Fox, theorbo [Recorded at Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia, 5 – 7 February 2013; Sono Luminus, DSL-92172; 1CD + Blu-ray, 52:44; Available from Amazon, Sono Luminus, and all major music retailers]

One of the most memorable statements in the remarkable life of John F. Kennedy was his comment to an assemblage of Nobel laureates that those present constituted ‘the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.’  From a musical perspective, a similar sentiment might have been justifiably expressed when countertenor José Lemos, harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, and theorbist Deborah Fox gathered at Sono Luminus in Virginia in February to record Io vidi in terra, this scintillating recital of vocal music from the 17th Century.  With the exceptions of Claudio Monteverdi and, to a lesser degree, Barbara Strozzi, now undeservedly perhaps more infamous than famous, the composers whose music is performed by this trio of accomplished artists are forgotten to all but the most attentive students of musical history, but only the most sheltered of listeners could fail to recognize in these miniature masterpieces of the Early Baroque the same emotions that grip humanity in the 21st Century.  The most poignant sentiments lack impact when delivered indifferently, however, and it is the natural, unaffected exploration of the feelings that shape these madrigals and canzonette—what might be termed the art that conceals art—that is the most extraordinary quality of Io vidi in terra.  Recorded by Sono Luminus with balance and warmth that further enhance the directness of approach, this disc offers performances that pay tribute to the circumstances of the composition and earliest performances of this music: created to express the most intimate of passions for gatherings of perfumed aristocrats, these pieces discard the posturing of opera, still in its infancy when this music was new, in favor of unadorned melodies that reach for the soul.  In this performance, the listener is privy to an intensely personal conversation conducted in music; a discourse so unguarded that it seems almost a violation to eavesdrop on it.  Few recordings so completely captivate the listener as Io vidi in terra manages to do, however.  Being absorbed into this atmosphere for an hour, the world itself seems an intrusion.

Born in Brazil, José Lemos possesses a voice that defies conventional classifications.  It is less a countertenor voice in the modern sense than a true contralto, the depth of the tone and rosewood colorations of the timbre evoking memories of Kathleen Ferrier rather than Russell Oberlin or Sir Alfred Deller.  Though he is an accomplished and critically-acclaimed presence in the world’s opera houses and concert halls, it is in the music like that heard on Io vidi in terra that Mr. Lemos’s gifts glisten most radiantly.  Unlike many of his countertenor colleagues, Mr. Lemos sings without the slightest hint of artifice.  So disarmingly uncomplicated is his singing on this disc that, rather than requiring the sort of suspension of credulity demanded by many performances, song seems not only more natural than speech but the sole medium via which such emotions can be shared.  Mr. Lemos’s technique encompasses all of the demands of these selections, including the oft-mangled Early Baroque trillo, and a particular joy of his singing is the manner in which he delivers bravura passages as organic developments of the melodic lines rather than making of them exercises in vanity.  Vocally, Mr. Lemos’s singing is a seductive blend of light and shade: lured into the smoky recesses of his lower register, the listener is then enchanted by the twilit glow of the singer’s upper octave.  There is not another singer in this range active today who sings with such evenness of tone and absolute integration of the registers, and these qualities contribute indelibly to the exalted grace of Mr. Lemos’s performance on this disc, as does the skill with which he exploits every emotive possibility of his flickering vibrato.

The intelligence with which the programme for this disc was selected is revealed by the fact that, even in comparison with the music of Monteverdi, there are no ‘lesser works’ heard here.  The name Tarquinio Merula may prompt little recognition among 21st-Century listeners, but his music—with which Io vidi in terra begins and ends—is wonderfully engaging.  Launched by a rippling figuration for the theorbo, played with audible relish by Deborah Fox, ‘Su la cetra amorosa’ immediately transports the listener to a candlelit chamber in a slightly murky past in which traditions of Renaissance troubadours were being transformed by the lyric art of a new generation of musical geniuses.  When harpsichordist Jory Vinikour enters the conversation, ‘Su la cetra amorosa’ bubbles with effervescent spirits, conveyed unmistakably by Mr. Lemos’s voicing of the piece’s coloratura, which trips along like the play of a mountain stream among pebbles.  Then, when in the final passage the text states that he would sing more sweetly than the most melodic bird, Mr. Lemos achieves this distinction eloquently.  Merulla’s ‘Canzonetta spirituale’ was one of the most popular pieces of its time, and Mr. Lemos’s singing of it leaves no doubt of why it so captivated those who heard it.  Perfectly following every hairpin turn in the song’s rhapsodic progress, Mr. Lemos sings with a stillness that ravishes the ear in this evocative lullaby for the infant Christ.

Both instrumentalists are granted opportunities to display their virtuosity, and they seize these chances with exceptional playing.  Ms. Fox offers a beguiling performance of a Partite by Alessandro Piccinini, the presumed inventor of the instrument of which she proves herself the complete mistress.  Mr. Vinikour’s fingers dazzle with accounts of Bernardo Storace’s ‘Spagnoletta’ and ‘Balletto.’  No less astonishing are the feats of musical brilliance and interpretive integrity that Ms. Fox and Mr. Vinikour bring to their playing in the vocal numbers: they and Mr. Lemos seem to breath in tandem, their collective phrasing so unified as to create the illusion that a single musician is producing all of the sounds heard on Io vidi in terra.

The title track, a setting of one of Petrarch’s best sonnets, is the work of Marco da Gagliano, another forgotten master who was maestro di cappella to the de’ Medici.  The beauty of Mr. Lemos’s singing of the piece is complemented by the simplicity and sincerity of Ms. Fox’s and Mr. Vinikour’s realization of the basso continuo.  Benedetto Ferrari’s ‘Ardo’ is also compellingly sung, Mr. Vinikour’s playing supporting the inner fire that smolders in Mr. Lemos’s singing of the piece.  The transitions between harpsichord and theorbo are managed with particular elegance in ‘Ardo,’ the restlessness conveyed by the harmonies and inventive modulations mined for expressivity by singer and instrumentalists alike.

Girolamo Frescobaldi was far more influential during (and after) his lifetime than his obscurity to 21st-Century audiences suggests.  Regarded by his contemporaries as one of the most important and innovative composers of music for both keyboard and voice, he was greatly esteemed by no less a master than Johann Sebastian Bach.  ‘Così mi disprezzate’ and ‘Se l’aura spira’ are sung by Mr. Lemos with consummate mastery of the idiom, the former benefitting from his command of coloratura.  The latter is built upon a continuo derived from the famed Folia, and the precision of Mr. Lemos’s intonation combines with the playing of his colleagues to highlight the pungent chromatic harmonies.

From its first bars, ‘Si dolce è’l tormento’ reveals that this is the work of the composer of L’Orfeo, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, and L’incoronazione di Poppea at his best.  The unapologetically bittersweet lyricism of the text is given deliciously melancholic life by Monteverdi’s setting, and the understated finesse of Ms. Fox’s accompaniment ideally supports Mr. Lemos’s gorgeously plaintive singing.  Despite its modest proportions, ‘Si dolce è’l tormento’ is cut from the same luxurious fabric as Ottavia’s pained utterances in L’incoronazione di Poppea.  The hushed refulgence of Mr. Lemos’s singing is deeply moving.  ‘Quel sguardo sdegnosetto’ is also attractively sung, its melodic line benefiting enormously from the complete absence of aspirations in Mr. Lemos’s execution of coloratura.  The subtlety of Mr. Vinikour’s playing also contributes significantly to the success of the performance, his restraint in cadences—where many players are tempted to indulge in displays of virtuosity that undermine the integrity of the music—confirming the depth of his artistry.

In times of discord and discontent, it is easy to forget the healing and unifying powers that music can possess and to undervalue the significance of art in the lives of average men.  Many of the recordings released during the past few years have done little to heighten awareness of the capacity of music in its purest form to ease troubled hearts and engage disenfranchised minds, and for better or worse this is an age in which every singer and musician claims the title of ‘artist’ by mere association.  Perhaps true artists are an endangered species, but Io vidi in terra confirms that they are not extinct.  Few corners of the vocal repertory might be thought more distant from 21st-Century sensibilities than the pieces recorded here, but the work of important artists has no expiry date.  While other labels fall over themselves to record lackluster performances of standard repertory, Sono Luminus dig deeper, and in Io vidi in terra they again unearth jewels whose sparkle is undimmed by unfamiliarity.  José Lemos, Jory Vinikour, and Deborah Fox triumph where so many of today’s musicians fail: they create in Io vidi in terra a genuinely distinguished, immensely touching artistic experience and say to the listener, ‘Join us!’


[In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that the author contributed liner notes to Io vidi in terra, as well as a new verse translation of Petrarch’s text for the title track.  The author had no artistic or decision-making involvement with the project, however.]