A Note on the Recordings

 

I am most grateful to the singers and accompanists who generously gave their time to this project, not only for their willingness to experiment with earlier styles but also for their readings which bridge the gap between written descriptions of the old practices and actual performance. In a very real sense, these recordings turn research into sound (we modelled the vocal delivery directly on information taken from treatises), and the tracks demonstrate various ways singers today can use historic principles of interpretation to shape their musical sensibilities.

 

 

Sixteenth- & Seventeenth-Century Works

The recordings in the first part of the site illustrate how performers may personalise the music while remaining within sixteenth- and seven-teenth-century principles of interpretation. Daniel Thomson (tenor), Terry McKenna (lute, guitars), and Thomas Leininger (harpsichord) root their approaches in 16th- and 17th-century rhetoric and oration, and they treat the texts freely in order to transform inexpressively notated compositions into passionate musical declamation.


Daniel adopts the persona of a storyteller, using techniques of rhetorical delivery to become the sort of musical orator listeners from the era might have heard. This requires him to alter the written scores not only to pace the ideas in the stories appropriately but also to remove many of the false accents and emphases the composers notated. Terry and Thomas further the emotional drama through a sympathetic style of accompaniment, and Terry prefaces “Sorrow stay” with an extempore ricercare, a brief improvisation in which he “seeks” Dowland’s opening lute sonority (ricercare – a preludial piece; the term comes from the Italian verb “ricercare” / “to search for”).

 

As the stories unfold in both the Italian and English works, Daniel varies his placement of grammatical and rhetorical pauses to give listeners time to reflect on what they have just heard so they can readily grasp the changing sentence structure. This compartmentalisation of ideas and emotions into easily discernible units allows him to match his style of delivery with the affections contained in each segment of text. In 1587, Francis Clement explained the rationale behind the addition of unnotated pauses: “the breath is relieved, the meaning conceived, ...

the eare delited, and all the senses satisfied” (pp. 24-25).

 

But beyond unwritten pauses, the performers adopt other rhetorical procedures. Orators, Nicola Vicentino observed in 1555, often speak more slowly and more quickly to move the affections of their auditors, and this way of modifying the pacing of the delivery, when applied to tempo in musical performance, has a great effect on the soul (“questo modo di muovere la misura, fà effetto assai nell’animo”; fol. 94v). In “Si dolce è’l tormento”, for example, Daniel and Terry constantly vary the tempo as the story progresses. “Dolcissimo sospiro”, on the other hand, benefits from principles derived from Giulio Caccini’s comments on “affetto cantando” / “passionate singing”, particularly the suggestion that singers should apply a “nobile sprezzatura” / “noble negligence” to the notated rhythm (1614: unpaginated preface). Moreover, throughout the recordings, the vocal delivery alternates between prosodic singing and continual emphasis, with Daniel stressing syllables much more uniformly during passages of greater intensity. Daniel also employs the occasional slide (portamento), a judicious amount of ornamentation, tempo rubato (especially delayed notes in “What a sad fate”), varied tone colour (particularly his use of head voice for some of the highest notes in “What a sad fate”), and messa di voce or as Caccini called it in Le nuove musiche, “il crescere e scemare della voce” / “the increase and decrease of the voice” (1602: unpaginated preface).

 

 

Eighteenth-Century Works

This part of the site begins with a recording of Tomaso Albinoni’s cantata “Amor, sorte, destino” that demonstrates interpretive strategies common in the eighteenth century. Daniel Thomson, accompanied by Thomas Leininger, derives his interpretation directly from the sentiments of the words, and this allows him to vary the pacing of his delivery as the story progresses. Thomas prefaces the cantata with a short, improvised prelude that sets the “stage” for the opening recitative, and in the following aria, the da capo is varied appropriately, while one of the phrases in the next recitative, “lo vede e lui sen ride,” is delivered in a truly spoken way. Throughout the cantata, alterations in Daniel’s vocal quality suit the emotion of the moment, and constant fluctuations of tempo, together with judicious applications of tempo rubato, as well as extemporaneous cadenzas, ensure that the cantata has the sort of flexibility eighteenth-century listeners expected. He then sets Giordani’s “Caro mio ben” in a new historical guise that includes a final cadenza reminiscent of the chromatic variety popular in the late eighteenth century.

 

The site continues with three recordings that show how eighteenth-century interpretive strategies may be combined with modern voice production, but in somewhat different ways. In the first of these, Sonja Gustafson, accompanied by Alan Demir, uses a light tonal quality, which we have enabled by transposing each piece to a tessitura that approximates her natural speaking voice. Sonja also sings some of the higher notes with the softer quality traditionally associated with the head voice. During the middle section of the aria “Piangerò”, she switches from her lighter quality to a fuller bodied chest tone to portray the vehement passion of the words. Moreover, Sonja does not synchronise her performance precisely with the accompaniment, for beyond tempo rubato, we wanted the notes placed “around” the beat in a free fashion.

 

In the final two recordings, Marina Theodoropoulou, accompanied by Mark Hutchinson, performs from nineteenth-century editions which contain the expression marks published by Thomas Welsh around 1825 (“O worse than death indeed / Angels ever bright and fair”) and the handwritten annotations added to Henry Bishop’s arrangement of “Armida dispietata / Lascia ch’io pianga” (?1841). Her performance, then,

blends eighteenth-century practices with interpretive gestures taken from the editions. Marina also sings the pieces in their written keys (at

A = 440 Hz), uses the chest quality throughout her range, and reserves her most prominent vibrato for expressive purposes. Both singers vary

their delivery through judicious applications of prosody and continual emphasis, while employing tempo rubato to remove many of the false accents and emphases the composers notated. But beyond these practices, Sonja derives the rhythmic values in the recitative “E pur così”

from the words themselves, and she performs, along with her accompanist, from note heads without prescribed values.

 

We deliberately chose the modern grand piano as the accompanying instrument for three of the eighteenth-century works to show that, when played in an appropriate manner, the piano complements the traditional bel canto style quite well. In other words, even without period-instrument accompaniment, singers can engage directly with historic vocal practices.

 

With regard to the recitative accompaniments, the pianists follow a common eighteenth-century practice and delay the main cadences; that is, they do not play the cadential chords until the singer finishes the phrase. In 2005, Dieter Gutknecht challenged much of the current orthodoxy on the placement of these chords and documented the variety of customs prevalent in the early eighteenth century (practices which include cadential delay).

 

In the last three pieces on the site, the annotated scores provide details of the historic vocal principles listeners will hear as the stories in the texts unfold.