Vestiva lux FHR137

Vestiva – Embellishing 16th and 17th Century Music
Lux Musicae London
rec. 2022, Holy Trinity Church, Stroud Green, London
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download from First Hand Records
First Hand Records FHR137 [58]

There was a time when the music of the baroque period was played from editions full of indications regarding interpretation on instruments other than those intended by the composer. The score of a harpsichord piece, for instance, included dynamic indications because it was expected that it would be performed on the piano. The representatives of historical performance practice aim at the publication of music in editions which offered what the composer had written down, resulting in the publication of so-called Urtext editions – a concept which raises all sorts of questions, but which I am not going to discuss here.

However, the performers of early music also studied the sources. They came across treatises which emphasized the importance of adding ornamentation while performing. They discovered books about the art of diminutions, including examples. In the preface of Girolamo Frescobaldi’s first book of toccatas, they read that the rhythm should be treated with considerable freedom. These three elements are the inspiration for the programme of pieces from the 16th and early 17th centuries that the ensemble Lux Musicae has recorded.

The element of rhythmic freedom is demonstrated here especially in a piece by Frescobaldi. His Toccata IX, conceived as a keyboard work, but here played at the harp, is a perfect example of the rhythmic freedom composers had in mind. This piece is from his first book of toccatas of 1615 mentioned above; in the preface he gives instructions as to how to play them: “[This] manner of playing should not be fixed to the beat, as is usual in modern madrigals, which, though difficult, are lightened by the aid of rhythm, making it now slow now fast or, even, held suspended according to the emotion or sentiment of the words”.

The authors of books on ornamentation often included examples, but did not expect performers to follow them slavishly. Ornaments were also not meant to be written out, but rather to be improvised. That is only possible if one studies them carefully, and internalizes them in order to use them when it is appropriate. The disc under review comes with concise liner-notes which refer to Michael Praetorius, who emphasizes the importance of additions to the music by performers, in the interest of moving the hearts of the listeners, rouse their emotions “and to allow the music to accomplish its ultimate purpose.” Ornaments should not be added indiscriminately, “but appropriately, at the right time and with a certain measure”. Diminutions are a specific kind of ornamentation, in which “a longer note is broken up into many other faster and smaller notes”. 

Apart from treatises on ornamentation or diminution, performers rely on what composers wrote themselves, for instance in series of variations. The book of pieces for recorder solo by Jacob van Eyck, Der Fluyten Lusthof, is a rich source of information about the ornamentation practice of the 17th century, as is demonstrated here in the variations on the song Slaep o zoete slaep (the spelling in the track-list is incorrect). In treatises one can find all sorts of examples of diminutions, and among the favourite subjects of such a procedure were Cipriano de Rore’s madrigal Ancor che col partire, Palestrina’s madrigal Vestiva i colli – from which this disc’s title is derived – and Lassus’s chanson Susanne ung jour. Some specimens are included here, but we also find diminutions on other pieces, which were made by the recorder player of the ensemble, Mirjam-Luise Münzel.

This brings us to the most interesting aspect of this recording. There is no lack of recordings of diminutions as they are included in treatises, such as those by Giovanni Bassano. However, as I say above, diminutions and embellishments were intended to be improvised. One of the recent tendencies in the early music scene is that performers apply in their own performances what they have read in the treatises. Rather than playing diminutions as they were written down by the likes of Bassano, they make their own diminutions, either on the ‘popular’ tunes which figure in the treatises, or on pieces of their own choice. Here Münzel plays her own diminutions on, among others, John Bennet’s consort song Venus’ Birds and Philippe Verdelot’s madrigal O dolce nocte. This cannot be appreciated enough, as this way the treatises are taken for what they are: instructions on how to do it yourself.

Obviously, a recording can never do full justice to the improvisational character of ornamentation and diminutions, as it fixes something that is not intended to be fixed; it can therefore never be more than an example of how it could be done. The ideal is that this practice should be applied in live performances. Even so, it is important to document on disc how it can be done and may inspire others – even those purchasers of this disc, who are amateurs on their instruments – to do the same, on their own level.

This disc is a fine demonstration of some of the main aspects of performance practice in music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque, thanks to the invention and playing skills of the three artists: Mirjam-Luise Münzel (recorder), Aileen Henry (harp) and Toby Carr (lute). This seems to be the first recording of their ensemble. It is a promising debut, and I hope to hear more from them in the years to come.

Johan van Veen

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Je ne puis éviter
Giovanni Bassano (1558-1617)
Vestiva i colli (Palestrina)
Laurenzio del Liuto (c1552-1590)
Così le chiome mie (Palestrina)
John Bennet (c1575-1614)
Venus’ Birds (diminutions Mirjam-Luise Münzel)
Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)
Bransle de la Torche (diminutions Mirjam-Luise Münzel)
Jacob van Eyck (1590-1657)
Slaep, o zoete slaep
Philippe Verdelot (1485-1552)
O dolce nocte (diminutions Mirjam-Luise Münzel)
Orlandus Lassus (c1530/32-1594)
Susanne ung jour (anonymous intabulation)
Jacob van Eyck
When Daphne from fair Phoebus did fly
Laurenzio del Liuto
Vestiva i colli (Palestrina)
Pierre-Francisque Caroubel (1556-c1611)
Orlandus Lassus
Susanne ung jour (diminutions Mirjam-Luise Münzel)
Nicola Matteis (1650-1714)
Cipriano de Rore (c1515-1565)
Ancor che col partire (diminutions Mirjam-Luise Münzel)
Anthony Holborne (c1545-1602)
Paradizo (diminutions Mirjam-Luise Münzel)
Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)
Toccata IX
Nicola Matteis
Diverse bizarrie sopra la Vecchia Sarabanda o pur Ciaccona