08 December 2015

BEST EARLY MUSIC RECORDING OF 2015: MOMENTI D’AMORE (Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, soprano; Pera Ensemble; Berlin Classics 0300664BC)

BEST EARLY MUSIC RECORDING OF 2015 - MOMENTI D'AMORE (Berlin Classics 0300664BC)GIULIO CACCINI (1551 – 1618), FRANCESCO CAVALLI (1602 – 1676), JOAN AMBROSIO DALZA (1508 – ?), ANDREA FALCONIERI (1585 – 1656), GIROLAMO FRESCOBALDI (1583 – 1643), CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI (1567 – 1643), DIEGO ORTIZ (1510 – 1570), GASPAR SANZ (1640 – 1710), BARBARA STROZZI (1619 – 1677): Momenti d’amoreFrancesca Lombardi Mazzulli, soprano; Pera Ensemble; Mehmet C. Yeşilçay, oud, percussion, and director [Recorded in Munich during Summer 2013; Berlin Classics 0300664BC; 1 CD, 50:58; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), and major music retailers]

What explanation is there for the fact that denizens of a world made smaller in a figurative sense by innovations and technological advances so often seem to be continually drifting further and further apart? Why do we choose to be offended by coffee cups and holiday-themed garments but ignore children who have no winter coats and villages that lack potable water? Why has the ability to instantaneously interact with people anywhere in the world compelled the de-prioritization of humanity and basic decency? Why are suspicion and bigotry so much easier for us than acceptance and forgiveness? Topical as they are (or seem to be), these are questions that artists have sought to answer since modes of communication were first utilized for purposes beyond the most basic pursuit of survival. From Peri’s Dafne and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo to Nico Muhly’s Two Boys and Jake Heggie’s Great Scott, music for voices and instruments has had as one of its most important objectives the task of examining those elements of humanity that unite and divide people. Whether the individuals involved are Orpheus and Eurydice, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, or Peter Grimes and Ellen Orford, the circumstances that thwart their efforts at bridging differences are invariably born of cultural misunderstandings and prejudices. Berlin Classics’ Momenti d’amore offers Twenty-First-Century listeners perspectives on the eternal struggles of human minds and hearts drawn from the enchanting, elusive world of Seventeenth-Century Italy. In performances such as those on this disc, even music of poor quality might seem like rediscovered gems, but the pieces chosen for Momenti d’amore are true treasures of their era. Vitally, Momenti d’amore is a disc that proclaims to today’s listeners that complex problems often have simple solutions that have nothing to do with technology or once-per-year charity. The crucial first step on the journey to understanding and thus to peace, Momenti d’amore reminds us, is listening.

The guiding principal of Pera Ensemble, founded in 2005 by Mehmet C. Yeşilçay and Mehmet İhsan Özer and named to honor the Greek term for Istanbul’s artistically- and ethnically-diverse Beyoğlu neighborhood, is thoughtful fusion of Eastern and Western musical traditions. Pera Ensemble’s musicians—James Hewitt on Baroque violin, Serkan Mesut Halili on qanun, Christoph Sommer on lute, theorbo, and Baroque guitar, Franziska Grunze on viola da gamba, and percussionist Murat Coşkun—are dedicated to blending the exotic sounds of traditional Middle Eastern instruments with the timbres—sometimes equally exotic to modern ears—of instruments prevalent in European Early Music. In several widely-acclaimed previous recordings for Berlin Classics, Pera Ensemble’s defining precept has proved a thrilling impetus for unforgettable music-making, but Momenti d’amore is an exceptionally effective recording in which playing of rollicking exuberance reveals the refined discernment of the concept. Under Yeşilçay’s impassioned direction, tempi are chosen with care in each selection to facilitate performances of technical mastery and near-ideal expressive impact. The marvel of the results achieved by Pera Ensemble is that these pieces sound as though they would be equally at home in the ancient streets of Istanbul and the crumbling palazzi of Venice. It is a boon in the context of this disc that so little primary-source information about instrumentation and the realization of continuo survives. Yeşilçay and Pera Ensemble are therefore able to allow their imaginations to soar without trampling on composers’ intentions. The traversals of the music on Momenti d’amore are not ‘safe,’ unadventurous performances that adhere to innocuous notions of historically-appropriate performance practices: this is playing informed by visceral responses to the music, not by having read in books how it ought to be performed.

True to the disc’s title, the quintet of instrumental pieces on Momenti d’amore provide plentiful moments to love, Pera Ensemble’s playing exuding not just technical but also expressive virtuosity. The piquant Passacalle by Andrea Falconieri is delivered with an incredible rhythmic vitality that makes it not a stylized dance but an actual one, the energy of the musicians’ playing igniting the combustive melodic lines. Falconieri’s Ciaccona is traversed with equal poise and panache, the piece—and Pera Ensemble’s playing of it—proving an ideal companion for the Passacalle. Gaspar Sanz’s expertly-crafted Zarabande is also rousingly played by the Ensemble. Joan Ambrosio Dalza’s dazzling Piva and Diego Ortiz’s Recercada segunda are fantastic pieces that create their soundscapes with primary colors, and Pera Ensemble’s spirited performances bring both numbers to life with stunning immediacy. Bolstered by the invigorating pulse of Yeşilçay’s and Coşkun’s percussion, the ensemble’s playing coruscates with ingenuity, innovation, and the simple joy of making music.

The most exquisite instrument in Pera Ensemble is the voice of Italian soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, a singer for whom the listener’s experience is as important as the fulfillment of her own musical goals. Many young singers are concerned solely with having the notes required by a piece in their voices, but this young singer is equally committed to ensuring that she also has the emotions evinced by the music in her heart. The dividends paid by this investment in expressivity are invaluable, not least in performances of stylized music like that heard on Momenti d’amore. Here, though, Lombardi Mazzulli follows the examples of her Pera Ensemble comrades by leaving the tired, dry ‘traditional’ manner of performing this music to less-imaginative singers. There is nothing unstylish about the soprano’s singing on this disc, however. Gorgeous singing is always stylish, and few performances of music of the vintage of that heard on Momenti d’amore are as gorgeously sung as Lombardi Mazzulli’s, her intonation unerring and the full compass of her voice splendidly even. One of the most gladdening aspects of this disc is its prevailing sense of cooperation: there is never a suggestion of a diva and her accompanists, only of seven brilliant musicians combining their talents like perfectly-fitted puzzle pieces.

Barbara Strozzi is one of the most intriguing figures of the early Italian Baroque. Likely the daughter of a servant and perhaps a courtesan herself, she enjoyed the patronage of a father who recognized and, somewhat atypically in their era, valued her musical talent. Strozzi’s cantata L'Eraclito amoroso (Op. 2, No. 14) is a work of considerable histrionic power, virtually a summation of the expressive capacities of Seventeenth-Century Italian vocal music. Responding to the red-blooded playing of her colleagues, Lombardi Mazzulli sings the tortured phrase 'Ogni tristezza assalgami' with beguiling intensity, the darker sentiments of the text ultimately seeming all the more poignant for being voiced with such beauty and sensuality. A celebrated singer as well as a composer, Strozzi set words with great clarity and effectiveness, and Lombardi Mazzulli’s singing elucidates these qualities in L’Eraclito amoroso. Falconieri’s ‘Cara è la rosa e vaga’ from Il primo libro di Villanelle, first published in Naples in 1616, comes near to matching the level of inspiration evident in Strozzi’s cantata, and Lombardi Mazzulli’s performance of it, supported by superlative playing by her colleagues, bathes every nuance of the music in the liquid ease of her vocalism, the golden tone floating through Falconieri’s ornaments with the grace of a spring zephyr rustling flower petals.

Justly or unjustly, Claudio Monteverdi is widely regarded as the first ‘great composer’ in the history of Western music. It is now established beyond doubt that Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, though inarguably the earliest score still performed with some frequency, was not the first opera in the modern sense as was often erroneously stated in previous generations, but it is difficult to dispute the notion that Monteverdi was the first composer to unite words and music in a manner that has retained its potency. Hearing Pera Ensemble perform ‘Qual sguardo sdegnosetto’ from Scherzi musicali cioè arie et madrigali, no. 2 (SV. 247) and ‘Ohimè ch'io cado’ from the 1624 Quarto scherzo delle ariose vaghezze confirms the legitimacy of Monteverdi’s exalted reputation. Lombardi Mazzulli phrases ‘Qual sguatdo sdegnosetto’ with a poet’s intelligence and intuitive feel for words’ meaning, and her tonal colorations take on chameleonic hues as dictated by the music’s sentimental meanderings. Her ‘Ohimè ch’io cado’ is a masterclass in the art of allying sequences of ravishingly-produced notes with subtly-inflected articulation of text. Girolamo Frescobaldi was no less masterful than Monteverdi at the art of making poetry sing, and his aria di passacaglia ‘Così mi disprezzate?’ is a pinnacle in his output. Lombardi Mazzulli and Pera Ensemble scale the musical and emotional heights of Frescobaldi’s aria with the surefootedness of world-class climbers. Perhaps ‘Ohimè ch’io cado’ is no Everest, but the vista provided by Lombardi Mazzulli’s performance of it is phenomenal.

Lombardi Mazzulli shone as the Moorish queen Zelemina in Spoleto Festival USA’s 2015 modern-première production of Francesco Cavalli’s Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona, and her singing of Giunone’s aria ‘Dalle gelose mie cure incessanti lacera’ from Act Two of the same composer’s La Calisto is one of the principal glories of Momenti d’amore. She is never less than superb in any of the selections on the disc, but her experience with Cavalli’s music [she has also recorded the title rôle in Cavalli’s Artemisia] facilitates an interpretation of Giunone’s aria that blazes with dramatic intensity. The character’s jealousy simmers in Lombardi Mazzulli’s singing, and Pera Ensemble’s boisterous playing provides a brightly-lit stage upon which her surprisingly complete characterization plays out. Extracted from Giulio Caccini’s 1601 Le nuove musiche, no. 21, ‘Odi, Euterpe, il dolce canto’ is indeed a ‘sweet song,’ made all the sweeter by the dulcet tone with which Lombardi Mazzulli sings it. Crossing the Mediterranean from Italy to Spain, the lilting ​Sephardic lullaby ‘Durme​’ makes an euphonious finale to Momenti d’amore, a last moment of love of the purest variety. Lombardi Mazzulli’s voice caresses the anonymous text like a mother’s hand soothing her child. Here, too, though, Pera Ensemble’s performance defies expectations: rather than shaping ‘Durme’ as a song designed to gently accompany a child into the land of dreams, this is a lullaby that conjures its own exotic dreamscape.

Early Music is seemingly regarded by many musicians and listeners as an impenetrable fortress of rigid, inviolable doctrines that discourage the participation of all but the most specialized of performers. Different cultures, too, often seem to be viewed as walls that cannot be overcome. Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad that ‘travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,’ and Momenti d’amore is a voyage that demands that even the most casual and complacent listeners shut out all distractions, abandon preconceptions and prejudices, and follow where the music leads. Not even the finest recordings can resolve the troubles of a deeply-flawed world, but a disc like Momenti d’amore serves as a profoundly engaging testament to what music can achieve. Music is a dialogue, one that ideally eschews faith, race, and every source of divisiveness. Owing to the open-hearted sincerity of these performances by Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli and Pera Ensemble, it is not necessary to understand Italian to feel every emotion that flows through the selections on Momenti d’amore. If only this inspiring, haunting, emboldening disc could prove to every pair of ears on earth that we need not understand one another’s languages, religions, or ways of life in order to love, trust, and foster peace among us.